Posted by David Kalat on August 17, 2013
While celebrating my 20th wedding anniversary at Walt Disney World a couple of weeks ago, I had occasion to think about racist content in family movies.
No, no–hold on, bear with me. I was having a great time and was fully immersed in the magical world of Disney like I was supposed to, but I ran across an interesting paradox that got me thinking. You see, over the years, Disney has retired some rides because their source material was deemed too obscure (bye bye Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride), and even some that didn’t seem all that obscure got the axe to make way for attractions based on the latest releases (bye bye 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea).
Given this policy, the enduring popularity of Splash Mountain at the Magic Kingdom is something to marvel at, since the ride is based on perhaps the most obscure work in the entire Disney canon, Song of the South. Weirder still, Splash Mountain debuted in 1989, a few years after its source material Song of the South was decommissioned and mothballed. It would have been easier to just forget Song of the South ever existed–but there’s something about this film that is not so easily forgotten.
Since the film is unavailable, a little background is in order. In the 1940s, Walt Disney set out on a deeply personal and quixotic venture to produce a live-action/animation hybrid adaptation of the Uncle Remus stories by (white) author Joel Chandler Harris. This was no B-picture throwaway–it was a decade-long project with significant technical innovations and commercial risks.
Recognizing the inherently sensitive racial content, Disney contracted leftist writer Maurice Rapf to serve as the film’s “conscience.” The idea was that Rapf would prevent any objectionable material from making it into the screenplay, and as long as he signed off on it, the film should be OK. In practice, Rapf ended up continually revising and rewriting to the point that the other writers were unable to make any progress at all, and Rapf was removed from the project–but it’s worth giving Disney high marks for effort, for recognizing the problem and trying to ameliorate it.
And let’s also take note of the fact that out of the entire history of classic Disney, the role of Uncle Remus is the one and only major role for a black actor. It’s not like there was any particular reason why black actors needed to be suppressed at Disney–they mostly made cartoons, whose voice actors were by definition unseen. But Song of the South was the first time, and for decades the only time, where a black man got center stage in a Disney film–and the suppression of Song of the South has pushed that trailblazing accomplishment to the margins.
Disney personally championed actor James Baskett. He called Baskett “the best actor to be discovered in years.” That’s not Disney angling for PR–that’s what he said privately, to his own family. Disney lobbied–successfully–to get Baskett an honorary Oscar, and stayed in touch with him personally after the film wrapped. Meanwhile, Baskett’s performance of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” became one of the studio’s signature songs.
In other words, there’s a decent case to be made that Song of the South is a landmark moment of civil equality at Disney, a high water mark of racial inclusiveness at the nation’s most influential producer of family entertainment.
So what is it about this movie that’s so objectionable?
The plot concerns a young boy (Bobby Driscoll–whom we last saw in a pre-Hitchcock variant on Rear Window). The boy is struggling with what he perceives as parental neglect. Enter a kindly and somewhat magical figure, Uncle Remus, who becomes a sort of surrogate parent, enthralling the boy with fanciful parables of the wily Brer Rabbit, a Bugs Bunny-like trickster hero. Inspired by these stories, the boy takes charge of his problems and takes an essential step towards growing up.
OK–it’s a Magical Negro story, yes. But surely that’s not the problem. American pop culture is crammed with Magical Negro stories–and as tired as that cliche is, nobody’s clamoring to ban Forrest Gump, The Green Mile, or The Legend of Bagger Vance.
For that matter, pegging this as a Magical Negro story misses the fact that Disney came back and redid this theme (neglected kids, magical surrogate parent, whimsical adventures that serve as life-coaching teaching moments) with a white woman in the Uncle Remus role and called it Mary Poppins. If the goal of colorblind casting is to have characters not defined by racial essentialism, then this is it–the character of Uncle Remus doesn’t have to be black.
But, of course he is. And he’s a black man in a story set in the South sometime around the Civil War. Harris’ original stories were set post-War, but the film doesn’t clarify this for viewers unfamiliar with the books. Many viewers–myself included–assumed the story takes place prior to the War, which would make Remus a slave. The NAACP drew this conclusion on the original release, too, and objected that the film depicted a sanitized, distorted, happy view of slavery.
This might be a misreading of the film, but it’s a misreading the film takes no pains to avert. And that’s really the problem–so what if the events are set after the Civil War? How exactly does that change the fact that this is set squarely in the location and time period where racial prejudice tore our country apart, resulting in massive casualties and a presidential assassination, yet seems to believe that as long as it never directly broaches any of those incendiary topics that everything is OK? Maybe, if Disney was going to go playing with this iconography, he needed to do something a little more proactive than just hire, and then fire, a leftist radical from the production team.
The animated sequences get into trouble, too. Brer Rabbit is a wonderful character–a true Disney rival to the snarky pranky cartoon heroes rampaging through Looney Tunes and the works of Tex Avery. He is pitted against some Wiley Coyote-wanna bes, whom he outwits in an escalating series of encounters. These are wonderful sequences, clever and funny and good in so many ways… and then Brer Rabbit gets caught by the tar baby.
A tar baby? Are you kidding me?
(That must’ve slipped through after Rapf got the boot)
When the Disney company released The Three Little Pigs on DVD, they faced a similar dilemma–here was a landmark Oscar-winning short of overwhelming historical significance, but it included a horrifying anti-Semitic joke. The solution was to animate some new footage, more or less in the style of the original, and splice that in as a substitute. It angered purists, of course, but if I was a Disney exec weighing the choice of angering the niche market of film preservationist purists vs. one of the world’s major religions, I wouldn’t think twice about throwing the film preservationists under the bus.
No analogue is available for Song of the South. The live-action footage is built around Baskett’s performance as Remus, and the cartoon footage depends on the tar baby scene. Short of remaking the film without any black people in it (see Mary Poppins) the problems are baked in.
Song of the South is not formally banned. No censor body has ruled on this one way or the other. The NAACP gave up their objection long ago. The last commercial release was a 1986 theatrical reissue, which was attended by zero protests. But the Disney Company, perhaps wisely, has quietly sequestered it on the logic that whatever minor revenue might be generated by a niche-market DVD release is easily surrendered to avoid the risk of angering any genuine constituencies. The risk isn’t worth the reward.
But, three years after that 1986 theatrical run, Disney Imagineers turned Song of the South into a theme park ride, which thrills thousands of people a day–millions a year. Maybe the audience is there after all.
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