In Humble Defense of Walt Disney's Song of the South
By Christian Willis, July 30, 2008
Ever since Song of the South's last theatrical release in 1986, various rumors have surfaced to explain why the movie has never been released on video in the United States. Whether the rumor was extreme or close to home, the underlying root cause has always been pretty obvious: race.
I believe that some of the objections people have about this film are because they are misinformed about this movie. They hear rumors, they may see a clip of the film touted as controversial, and they pass summary judgment. In this humble defense, I hope to bring to the table some explanations and I hope you will read all of this. A few people have even gone so far as to call me a racist over the years, but I can happily say I am not. Friends and family that truly know me also know this is not the case. I have a strong love for our country and our diversity.
To start with, I'd like to talk about the origins of this film.
Where did the Uncle Remus character come from? It all begins with a man named Joel Chandler Harris. Born in 1848, Harris grew up during the days of the antebellum South, when slavery was still very much a part of life. He lived on the Turnwold Plantation and spent a great deal of his time with the slaves. One slave in particular, Uncle Bob Capers, told him fantastic stories. Those stories, along with the unique dialect in which he told them, remained in Harris' mind. In 1880 (well after the Civil War), Harris published his first book, "Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings." The book was an instant success, and Harris went on to publish another ten books on the stories of "Uncle Remus," and even created the Uncle Remus Magazine until his death in 1908.
Where did Uncle Remus's stories come from? The stories themselves are much older than Uncle Bob Capers. While it is for certain that most, if not all, of the tales were brought over to America from Africa, it has been speculated that some of the tales may have originated from India or Egypt. The stories undoubtedly changed slightly as they were handed down over the generations.
Harris spent literally his entire life immersed in the language. Given the information above, I believe that Harris was genuinely interested in preserving these stories that were told to him in childhood. He wasn't trying to make fun of how they spoke, but rather I feel he believed that the delivery was an integral part of the stories, and therefore did his best to preserve the original dialect.
Walt Disney grew up reading those same stories that Joel Chandler Harris wrote. Disney loved the stories, and he envisioned that someday he would use his artistic talent to bring them to the silver screen. Since the 1930's, Disney had experimented with combining live-action with animation in his Alice Comedies, but it really wasn't until after 1941 with The Three Caballeros that technology looked promising for Walt's vision of Uncle Remus walking among his fanciful creations. Work on Song of the South (originally "Uncle Remus") began in 1941.
And now, the core of the issue. Song of the South was Walt Disney's first attempt at a mostly live action film with animated segments interspersed. Logically, this raised the concern of how African-Americans in the film would be portrayed. These stories are unquestionably a part of African-American heritage, so omitting African-Americans from the film would have been an insult to say the least.
Issue 1: The film's time period is ambiguous. Despite the fact that Harris' original Uncle Remus stories are set after the Civil War (and the abolition of slavery), the film makes no reference to any specific year to establish this. Why this is so remains unknown. Perhaps Disney assumed that people knew the Uncle Remus stories were set after the Civil War. Today, not many people realize this fact unless they have read the original books. This remains a source of confusion.
Issue 2: The use of dialect in the film. The African-Americans in the film all speak with a dialect that, today, is considered disparaging and derogatory. However, in the 1940's, this type of dialect was still being used to some extent. Had the actors and actresses in the film not used any dialect, it would have destroyed Disney's attempt to recreate the even thicker dialect used in the original Uncle Remus stories. The movie's dialect was likely simplified for the audience.
Issue 3: Subservient roles and attitudes. A common complaint of this film is that the black actors and actresses in the film are subservient. Example: Uncle Remus removes his hat and bows slightly when talking with Miss Doshy. Toby replies "yes'm" to Miss Doshy's instructions. Ned takes in a trunk of clothes. I believe all of these actions would be non-issues if they were performed by white actors. These actions are all done out of respect for women. Sadly, chivalry was much more prevalent back then.
Issue 4: Stereotypes. In addition to the dialect (explained above), other various aspects of the film are now considered to be stereotypes.
Issue 5: The plantation workers appear to be happy. They sing as they go to work in the cotton fields, they sing as they return, they sing around a campfire, etc. First, it should be noted that this movie is a musical with 9 songs. Disney used the Hall Johnson Choir for the big numbers involving the plantation workers, to add a "spiritual" feel to the film. Some believe this gives the appearance they were content with their situation, rather than tolerating it. Given the kindness of Miss Doshy, the plantation owner, it could be plausible that they were actually happy living there. But again, the film does not go into detail on this.
Issue 6: Toby. Toby's parents are absent; Toby is absent from Johnny's birthday party. That's true, we never see Toby's parents. But then again, we also only see Ginny's parents briefly. And we only see Johnny's father at the beginning and end of the movie. The plain fact is... it's simply not important to the story. As for Toby being absent from Johnny's birthday party, who knows; maybe he was hanging out with Uncle Remus or Aunt Tempy. Johnny's mother is the one who arranged the birthday party, and she wouldn't even have allowed Ginny to attend if Miss Doshy hadn't overheard the conversation. It's all a moot point anyway, because Johnny himself wasn't even at his own birthday party.
Issue 7: The Tar Baby. This animated sequence is considered to be controversial in that it depicts a black figure made out of tar designed by Brer Fox and Brer Bear to catch Brer Rabbit. Despite the fact that The Tar Baby was originally from Joel Chandler Harris' stories, a stigma has developed over the years about this imagery.
Now that we've identified most of the issues surrounding this film, let us then look at some positive aspects of the movie that, to me, show an attempt on Disney's part to transcend any racial barrier.
1. Uncle Remus. The character of Uncle Remus, played admirably by James Baskett, is depicted as a wise, kind, and carefree elderly man who enjoys telling stories to a younger audience, regardless of whether they're black or white. This is established right at the beginning. He goes against Miss Sally (the film's villain) because he believes his stories are a benefit to Johnny, who is struggling with the absence of his father. He shows his love of animals and protects Johnny throughout the film.
2. Johnny, the little boy. Johnny is color blind. The first friend he makes on the plantation is a black boy named Toby, which he frequently plays with; he holds hands with Uncle Remus several times throughout the film and looks up to him as a father figure.
3. All of the villains in the film are white. Sally, Johnny's mother, is undoubtedly the villain in the film, as she forbids her son from seeing Uncle Remus. Likewise, Ginny's two brothers are villains, in that they are the personification of Brer Bear and Brer Fox, intent on causing harm to Johnny (Brer Rabbit).
4. Miss Doshy, the plantation owner. Miss Doshy is shown to be a benevolent owner, while definitely feisty and fussy as grandmothers can be. Twice in the movie Uncle Remus and Miss Doshy engage in a brief but meaningful dialogue that shows they are on a same level of maturity and have mutual respect for each other.
Given these observations, I believe that Disney should step up to the plate and make this film available to the American public. (They have already released this movie in several other major countries.) Why? Because regardless of whether someone feels that this movie is racist or not, it's a part of film history and therefore it needs to be preserved. It also encourages discussion of the film and issues of that time period. And most importantly, it puts to rest the rumors and misinformation that have been surrounding this film for over two decades.
I would also encourage Disney to create a forward or preface to the film that explains the time period in which it was produced. This would help generations of today understand that it was a product of its time. However, I do not believe that the movie should be altered in any way (as Disney has done previously with some of their older films).
I have yet to hear of a child who's seen this movie for the first time remark about race. Could it be that in their innocence they are seeing what Walt intended--a colorblind story about a little boy who listens to Uncle Remus' entertaining stories? I can assure you that as a child I never once considered race as I watched this movie.
We live in a world today where sex, drugs, and violence is now the norm on the silver screen. At least Song of the South made an attempt at showing harmony. And not only did it attempt at showing harmony within a family, but harmony between races as well; I think that's a big accomplishment for a film made in the 1940's when segregation was still very much a part of life. I truly respect the opinion of those who find this movie offensive, but I also ask that my opinion is respected as well, for all of the reasons above.