Let me begin by saying that, of course, Song of the South is hardly the worst movie ever made. There are even a lot of things to admire about—especially, its technical achievements, and James Baskett’s admirable performance. And, in classic Hollywood style, some moments of the narrative are genuinely affecting—despite its (even for Hollywood) excessively over-the-top melodrama.
(You know what the most consistent reaction to Song of the South is when I screen it for my Disney students? Giggling.)
And, moreover, I know that there are any number of reasons why people love and/or defend the film as much as they do which does not necessarily have anything to do with its racial stereotyping.
Of course, I’ve already made all these points before here.
But, apparently, qualities such as nuance, thoughtfulness, and subtlety were big problems for some. In the age of twitter, we need to reduce it to the most obvious and superficial question (i.e., is it racist--"yes or no"? And really that is by far the least interesting question to me about that film's complicated history). So, here, I’ll just get to the point.
It’s been difficult to know how to respond to some of the misguided,largely uniformed, and even vitriolic, criticism that’s been addressed to me personally, as though “shooting the messenger” and other ad hominem attacks were a substitute for meaningful critique.
(Of course, some have had my back--which I'm very grateful for).
Why “shooting the messenger”? Well, let’s just say that anyone who felt I sought out to “prove” how offensive Song of the South was seemed to miss the book entirely. I had no interest in doing so, for the simple reason that I didn’t feel it needed to be restated for the 100th time (in academic books, we look for new areas of inquiry, not opportunities to rehash old ones for an easy, quick buck).
In this sense, people who say my book isn’t even about Song of the South are quite correct—it was a history of the complicated relation between racial politics, audience reception, and media transitions across the last 100 years of American culture, with Song of the South as simply a uniquely interesting case study—especially given its singular relationship with Disney, and all the fascinating possibilities therein.
But, whatever. See above point about nuance, blah-blah, etc . . . The larger point here is that I’ve had little interest until now in re-engaging that debate, which is little more than a virtual quagmire that reaffirms once again the internet’s ability to occasionally draw out the worst in human nature.
Oops, there I go again.
7 Revisionist Myths about Song of the South
Far more urgent and important, however, are some addressing of the many lies regarding Song of the South that I fear have begun to solidify in the wake of my book’s first appearance a year and a half ago—as we move further away from not just the making of Song of the South, but from any direct memory of what the American Civil Rights Movement even was (to use a metaphor from a 1957 episode of Disneyland, I feel it’s my responsibility to try to put this “genie” back in the bottle--however futile that will prove to be).
So, I feel a need to distill some of Song of The South’s many problems down to their basic essence—a primer to why Song of the South was and still is offensive, and why none of its defenses hold any water.
Myth #1: Little Johnny “doesn’t see race.”
Well, sorry, it’s still there . . . as the last, oh, four centuries of American History should have taught us by now. And while it’s occasionally nice to live life from a child’s point-of-view, that’s ultimately pretty irresponsible in the long-run, wouldn’t you say? (plus, Johnny’s innocence would not preclude him from eventually internalizing the prejudices of his mother—see part of Myth #5 below)Myth #2: It’s just a “product of its time.”
Here, the idea is that everything was racially insensitive when the film was made, so its no big deal. But, alas, no, America (and Hollywood) was a much more complicated place in the 1940s. During WWII, a conscious effort was made on the part of the US Office of War Information, most Hollywood Studios and various Civil Rights groups to promote “positive” images of African-Americans onscreen to boost morale—refuting exactly the kind of clichés Song of the South would later promote in the immediate aftermath of war. This is exactly why the film was controversial when it was released—many people were all too well aware of how this was a regression to older stereotypes. Plus, there is ample evidence that everyone within the studio knew all too well that they would have serious problems with the material (see conversation below about Walt’s so-called “intention”). If Song of the South was indeed a “product of its time,” wouldn’t the Disney Studios have instead been completely oblivious to what they were doing? Something doesn’t add up. Also, let me add that fans who continue to defend the film as a "product of its time" to this day, in our more "enlightened" age, should think long and hard about what they are really defending, and why they are really still invested in defending it.
Myth #3: It’s “not about slavery.”
Well, technically, no, it's not—its set after the Civil War, but you’d have a mighty hard time figuring that out just by watching the movie, which is so riddled with old Plantation clichés that it’s difficult to figure out when it actually is set. This was by design—it could tap into conservative nostalgia for the Old South on a visceral level, while still having the “out” of being *technically* (but not really) set after the war.
But I’d like to push this a step further and say that, in a sense, yes, Song of the South is very much “about” slavery. Why? Because the origins of Brer Rabbit are not just Joel Chandler Harris but go back to oral slave traditions. Let me repeat that—the Brer Rabbit stories are inherently slave stories. The idea of the physically weak outsmarting the more physically dominant were thinly veiled allegories for how slaves—who were otherwise powerless—could outwit their white master. Plus, Uncle Remus and the other African-American characters in the movie are no doubt former slaves, and would carry that painful memory with them. So, in short, yes, the weight of slavery’s history is very much in the very DNA of Song of the South regardless.Myth #4: That’s “just the way things were back then.”
Ok—let’s say we accept the fact that the film is set after slavery. The problem with that is that the Civil War was hardly the end to the nation’s racial troubles, and anyone with any historical sense could tell you that in some ways things got a whole lot worse before they got better. Since African-Americans were no longer technically slaves, other forms of racial violence were necessary to maintain the “old” way—black men were subjected to regular lynchings if they forgot “their place” (and often even if they didn’t), or in some cases to being burned alive while white people threw a bonfire party around them, not to mention the more everyday instances of the kind of institutional discrimination (Jim Crow laws) and other forms of intimidation used to maintain segregation. This is the history Song of the South distorts, if you want to take the out by saying its set after the Civil War. So, no, this isn't the way things were.Myth #5: Uncle Remus is just a “sweet, kindly old man.”
Let me start by saying my respect for Baskett’s achievement here is massive. It’s no secret that an African-American actor in the 1940s couldn’t be choosy about the roles he took, and if he rejected and/or criticized any of them, he’d never work in that town again. To his endless credit, Baskett did the best with what he had to work with.
Beyond that, this argument about Remus himself just completely overlooks what the “Uncle Tom” stereotype was to begin with, and what it meant historically. The Tom’s existence was solely to please, and seek the approval, his white "master"—he had no identity outside of that. This is made explicit in the film by the repeated ways in which Uncle Remus is "put in his place” by the two white women in the story, and by the fact that he is completely emotionally devastated at the end when the mother tells him he cannot spend time with Johnny—so much so that he feels compelled to leave the area altogether (seriously, the guy clearly has nothing to do with himself but please Johnny, and when denied that purpose he’s unable to recover—that’s at best condescending).
And what of that big happy smile? It's long been noted that the cliché image of the grinning African American which has so long been ubiquitous throughout US popular culture was historically really about alleviating white guilt over slavery—a reassuring fantasy based on the desire to believe that black people really held no grudges about all that stuff. This is a fantasy that Song of the South is especially guilty of indulging in. Plus, it also brings us back to the idea of the Uncle Tom—he’s always just happy to please, and he never forgets his place (see myth #4)Myth #6: It’s actually a movie about “overcoming” racial problems, promoting harmony between the races.
Completely disingenuous. Granted, this one might hold some water if Song of the South was brave enough to actually address the legacy of slavery in the first place, and to deal directly with the actual pain that a real life Remus would no doubt carry with him back then. You cannot have the healing without the confrontation first. And, of course, Disney wouldn’t touch that topic directly with a ten-foot pole. No, it’s not a movie about overcoming the legacy of slavery—instead, it’s a nostalgic fantasy that pretends slavery never happened, and that African-Americans collectively have no history (see myths #3 & #5).Myth #7: “Walt’s intentions were good.”
OK—now we get to the heart of the matter, one which deserves its own sub-categories, because we need to take this BS one step at a time:
1) The fundamental problem with establishing “intention”—First off, read up on the "Great Man" Myth of history, and realize its foolish to put all of the film on Walt himself in any case when so many people worked together to build that studio and this film in particular. Beyond that: we don’t really know what an artist was thinking at the time; we don’t have a pipeline directly into someone’s head, let alone someone who existed 70 years ago. At best, we have interviews which need to be contextualized by other sources, or second-hand anecdotes from the people who knew the artist, as well as the, shall we say, “wishful” projection of diehard fans, but those are often heavily clouded by nostalgia and bias, and thus raise as many questions as answers about what the “true” intentions were.
2) There’s really no hard evidence to support this defense anyway—where exactly are we supposed to see definitive proof that Walt’s intentions were good? The only positive stuff is just typical Hollywood studio PR spin—a shrewd business operation wisely trying to protect their (massive) investment. Of course, Walt and his inner circle are going to claim they tried the best they could, in that sort of “aw, shucks,” faux-naive, kind of way that the uber-smart Walt often deployed when confronted with potentially dicey issues surrounding some of the studio's films. But, look beneath the surface here—few changes were made once the studio recognized there were going to be problems, and by all accounts Disney largely ignored African-American concerns (he clearly wanted them to just sign off on the project more so than have any creative input). He did bring in a more liberal screenwriter for revisions, but Maurice Rapf apparently just came away from the experience more frustrated than anything else. And, if anything, evidence suggests Walt really just thought the whole controversy was more communist agitation, and not really about civil rights. Starting with the Animator strike at the studio at the beginning of the decade and perhaps culminating in his participation with the Congressional witch hunts later, it’s easy to speculate that it was labor and class—not race—that Walt was obsessed with.3) Walt didn’t have to make Song of the South—I cannot stress this point enough. Ok, ok: let's say Walt really “did try to do the best he could.” But, this overlooks a giant elephant in the room: nobody forced him to make the movie. If his intentions were truly good, if he really was sensitive to African-American concerns, why did he proceed to make the film even after so many people within his studio told him he’d had trouble? Just from a business standpoint, let alone a racial one, why proceed with such a risky project with too much at stake instead of just dropping it and moving on? That to me is the most damning evidence. Look, to be clear, I’m not saying Walt was a bigot at all—didn’t know the guy personally, don’t see a lot of overwhelming evidence to support it, and I’m not into knee jerk labels anyway (see point above about nuance). But what I am saying is that, at the end of the day, most actual evidence from the time suggests, at best, he really didn’t take the criticisms all that seriously, and thus didn’t “intend” to do well. As Walt often did throughout his life (and sometimes to absolutely brilliant effect), he wanted to make his movie his way, and didn’t care who got in the way, or what others had to say.4) “Intention” is really about Pattern Recognition—So, to modify point #1 above, I do of course support the so-called auteur theory (asI’ve written about before—in the book I’m most proud of), but as I tell my students when I teach, say, the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, it’s not about establishing a direct link to Paul’s brain, and then downloading information. It’s about looking at the films themselves, looking at industrial and biographical sources, about looking at what others have written, and then looking for patterns to emerge. Only then can you begin to map out an “auteur” reading of a body of work featuring one historical figure as the common link. Almost every single Anderson film is about fathers and sons--clearly, there is something there. This is to me why ultimately Song of the South was (and in some ways still is) such a problem for Walt Disney—there is no pattern in his films of an really engaged or “positive” interest in African-American representations, if we look at his entire career. Instead, we have an unrelentingly white, upper-middle class vision of the world—with blackness either relegated to the furthermost margins or absent entirely. Song of the South was the only Disney movie ever made that focuses primarily on the African American experience in his lifetime—and it's one riddled with the worst clichés about that experience. It just doesn’t look good. I firmly, honestly, believe that if Disney had made a slightly more diverse collection of movies about that experience through the decades (however modest), people wouldn’t really have focused much on Song of the South, whatever its problems. Yes, a lot of studios made movies “back then” whose stereotypes we would cringe at today, but those same studios in retrospect also made some other films that—for its day—could have been read as “positive.” But Walt never really did, and that, unfortunately, is, yes, a part of his legacy.
Finally, on the subject of "intention" let me add that, frankly, it really just does not matter in the end what Walt intended, even if we could deduce it. Why? Because cause does not negate effect. In the end, we are left with an offensive film either way, and hiding beyond intention is simply a cowardly way of avoiding responsibility for the work itself.
I’m sure there are some things I’ve forgotten and/or overlooked, but I trust the larger point has been made.
I will say, finally, that I’ve changed my mind from what I wrote in the book: Disney is right to continue to keep the film out of circulation. I was naïve and idealistic. There is simply no way to re-release the film now in a way that wouldn’t be read as a vindication for those who say it was never offensive to begin with—and beyond that, there are too many chances for its “natural” ideologies to continue to spread.
Time to let it go.