Crossing the Line – Song of the SouthPosted: July 25, 2008
It’s the film Disney refuses to release (probably)! The NAACP’s least favorite feature length cartoon, Song of the South was made in 1946 and is remembered largely for the song Zip-a-dee-do-dah and a log flume style ride in the Disney amusement parks.
Tagline: We’re headin’ for the Laughin’ Place!
Synopsis: A whiney little white kid and his family truck out from Atlanta to his Granma’s plantation, which was somehow not burned down by General Sherman (this is Reconstruction Alabama). He cries because his dad immediately leaves again for the city. He quickly forgets his angst though, as Uncle Remus, the aging black man who also raised his father, befriends him and teaches him quaint stories about the various Brer animals and their misadventures. The boy also makes friends with a young black boy and a poor white girl, and the three of them are plagued by the girl’s asshole brothers. Uncle Remus’ quaint country wisdom saves the day though, and everybody that deserves to end up happy ends up happy, singing Zip-a-dee-do-dah.
Interesting Fact: The film was first released in 1946. Disney re-released the film in 1956, but in 1970 Disney announced in Variety that “Song of the South” had been “permanently” retired, but the studio eventually changed its mind and re-released the film in 1972, 1981, and again in 1986 for a 40th anniversary celebration.
Objectionable material: Racism, white people, demon spawn children, sappy songs so saccharine that you’ll need insulin injections, ancient racial slurs you’ve never heard of, heavy handed morality and parables,
Disturbing Quote: There’s other ways of learnin’ ’bout the behind feet of a mule than gettin’ kicked by him, sure as I’m named Remus. And just because these here tales is about critters like Br’er Rabbit an’ Br’er Fox, that don’t mean it can’t happen to folks! So ‘scuse me for sayin’ so, but them who can’t learn from a tale about critters, just ain’t got the ears tuned for listenin’.
MBRFT: All of the films we’ve looked at so far have been unapologetically intended for adult audiences. “Song of the South,” however, boldly delivers its flagrant and archaic racism to children of all ages, and that’s why the original negative of the film is buried somewhere deep inside the Disney vaults next to Walt Disney’s frozen head and that scene from “The Rescuers” with the naked chick in it. Thanks to Psycholarry’s connections to the underground racist tape trading market (see Heroes’ Con), we were able to obtain a digitally re-mastered copy.
Now, I understand that it’s unfair to hold a movie made in 1946 up to the same standards as today. Back then, the only black people featured in mainstream entertainment were on the “Amos ‘n’ Andy” radio show and they were both white. At least Disney gave a leading role to an African-American actor. Unfortunately, he is portrayed as a subservient jovial storyteller who lives in the forest, making me think they confused Blacks and Hobbits.
Uncle Remus (not to be confused with Uncle Tom or Uncle Miltie) treats us to three of his patented Br’er Rabbit stories. For a ninety-minute Disney film, I expected mostly animation, meaning we would only have to put up with some brief live-action wrap-arounds for context. Instead the film dwells endlessly on Johnny’s plantation adventures and draws out his “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” sing-a-long (a song with only about eight words in it total) until it feels like “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” I don’t understand why a studio famous for its brilliant animation felt the need to pad this thing out with a forgettable narrative. The Br’er Rabbit shorts are actually pretty amusing and aren’t much more racist than a Bugs Bunny cartoon (maybe Speedy Gonzalez cartoon would be more accurate). The early blending of animation and live-action is still impressive and wouldn’t be fully realized by filmmakers until 1992’s “Cool World.” (Editor’s Note: What about Who Framed Roger Rabbit?)
PsychoLarry: For those of you that didn’t study much African American history in school, the names “Uncle” and “Aunt” were applied to favored slaves and later free blacks as a way to both make them feel connected to the family and to make white people feel better about enslaving others. Thus you get “Uncle Tom”, “Aunt Jemima”, and Song of the South’s main character “Uncle Remus”, who aren’t actually anyone’s parent’s siblings. Isn’t it lovely of Disney to keep that little tidbit of race relations alive 80 years after the Civil War? I sure am grateful.
I would say the most telling thing about Song of the South is that while it takes place during Reconstruction, it appears that the Southern plantation is alive and well. The “free” Blacks walk cheerfully into the fields every day singing happy songs, while the house servants care for the children and cooking without showing any irritation at tending to some stuck up old white aristocrat and her bratty kid. I’m sure they didn’t mind living in shacks and wearing rags and working in hot Georgia fields all day, I mean, there’s no visible Overseer to whip them any more so things must be fantastic. Clearly Walt Disney was so politically sensitive that he put a little jab at the appalling inequality that remained after the end of the Civil War, and how African-Americans were just the more resilient people, finding happiness even in the face of this inequality! What a great man.
All in all the racism in Song of the South is in the context. The story itself is fairly pedestrian, and cutesy in the way you expect of early Disney films. Outside of a study of race relations or a look at African-American literature, it really doesn’t have much to offer. That is was shown to kids is fairly disconcerting, especially given that part of the film shows how much fun two young boys can have playing unattended with an old man in the woods. Go see Wall-E instead; Robots aren’t racist.
Screaming Girl: I admit it. I am the reason that the column is late this week but I have a moderately good reason why. I didn’t watch the movie. When we watched the movie I fell asleep. I often fall asleep during the movies but not usually in the first fifteen minutes. Yes, we ‘watched’ the movie a few weeks ago and I had a great deal of time between then and now to watch it but I just couldn’t. I was planning on doing it yesterday but the call of martinis and cheap wine was just too strong and today after work I had to clean my turtle’s cage (something I had also been putting off).
Since the column must be written, with or without viewing the movie I will write about what I can remember from the first fifteen minutes. Here it goes:
The white child in the movie looked like the devil. The black child kept a frog in his hat. The white child’s dad was supposedly fighting ‘the good fight’ against racism while owning slaves. I couldn’t understand a damn word that Uncle Remus was saying. In fact I couldn’t understand a word anyone was saying. In all honesty we should have used subtitles because I am sure MBRFT and Psycho Larry were getting annoyed with me asking ‘what did he just say?’ every thirty seconds. I sang along with zipidee doo dah. There was a racist cartoon character, a rabbit? A bear? A fox? That’s when I fell asleep.
Did I mention that we watched this with other people? We watched it with who we lovingly refer to as ‘the brown guys’. The brown guys are our friends that from, Iraq, India, Pakistan, Iran (she is actually a girl) and wherever Sharif is from. I woke up to ‘the brown guys’ laughing and calling MBRFT and Psycho Larry racists. Luckily my nap is what saved me from being lumped in as a racist. It might also be why I still have yet to see the movie.
Mind Fuckability Rating: It’s no wonder Disney doesn’t acknowledge this movie.
– Next week’s review will be a surprise! Mostly because I can’t decide what we should review!