Song of the South

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Not So Satisfactual
Chris Wisniewski on Song of the South

Whether or not you’ve seen the 1946 Disney film Song of the South—and if you have, you probably haven’t seen it since at least 1986, the last time it was released to theaters—you’ve almost certainly been touched by it through some form of cultural osmosis. Perhaps, while at Disneyland, Disney World, or Tokyo Disneyland, you rode Splash Mountain, populated by the movie’s animated characters, Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear. Maybe you’ve seen a clip of James Baskett performing the movie’s Oscar-winning song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” Or if Baskett’s version is unfamiliar to you, you might have heard the Muppet bunnies sing it, or Paula Abdul, or Miley Cyrus. Or it’s possible you received a “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah Tip for the Day” during one of your trips to a Disney resort.

These redeployments are anecdotal evidence that Song of the South—which is, by almost any measure, alternately good, bad, and ugly—has had an undeniable cultural influence. Yet despite that, the movie is now available to the public thanks only to video transfers of dubious quality on YouTube. Disney has willingly commodified “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” and the movie’s animated characters, but it has buried the film that first brought them to the public’s attention. Br’er Rabbit and the other residents of Splash Mountain, along with Baskett’s altogether “satisfactual” number, are cultural orphans—references without a referent. This is because Disney executives seem to believe, for good reason, that Song of the South is unacceptably racist.

American film history is littered with canonical films that also just happen to be racist—think Birth of a Nation or The Jazz Singer or Gone with the Wind or Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Liberal cinephiles (or even, let’s be honest, conservative cinephiles just a little to the left of Klansmen) bemoan this fact and then do their best to look past it, to bracket the racism or somehow contextualize it. After all, D. W. Griffith, Al Jolson, Victor Fleming, and even Mickey Rooney, though he’s still alive and kicking, no longer have people actively managing their personae in any meaningful way. It’s up to us to grapple with their legacies and to make sense of their movies or performances with an appropriate level of historical and ideological distance.

Disney, however, is different. The ultimate studio-as-auteur (though the Hollywood model during the classical period was always the studio, and not the director, as auteur), the Disney company has spent almost a century aggressively managing its image and its brand to maximize its popular appeal, particularly to family audiences. It can ill afford to release a movie on DVD, targeted at children, that could be accused of racism; at the same time, it would be foolish for Disney to completely shutter “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” So we end up in an uncomfortable place: the movie exists, but it doesn’t; we all know the film, but we can’t possibly see it; it’s too valuable to be ignored, but too racist to be taken seriously.

Adapted from the Uncle Remus tales by Joel Chandler Harris, stories the movie tells us are filled with “simple truths,” Song of the South became a passion project for Walt Disney during a financially difficult point in his studio’s history. Disney had long hoped to adapt the Uncle Remus stories for film, and even spent some time courting Paul Robeson for the leading role. After nearly a decade of work on the project, the studio’s wartime financial troubles provided an appropriate justification to move forward: animated features were proving too time-consuming and, therefore, costly for the Disney studios to produce, but Song of the South could be made without committing studio resources to the production of more than an hour’s worth of animation. Since the scenes with Remus (Baskett) could be shot as live-action, the animated sequences—essentially, a selection of Harris’s Uncle Remus tales—could be limited to 25 minutes of screen time, thus offering considerable cost savings compared to a fully animated feature.

The problem was that the Disney people had no experience with live action. After a series of false starts that included meetings with King Vidor about directing the live-action segments, Disney eventually made a deal with Samuel Goldwyn, which provided necessary facilities as well as now legendary DP Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane) to work on the film. Genius though he was, Toland couldn’t save the movie from the uninspired efforts of newcomer Harve Foster, who directed the technicolor live-action segments (reportedly with minimal attention to the blocking and staging of a number of crucial scenes), nor could the movie be rescued by the awkwardness and banality of its framing device.

Without explicitly stating so, the movie is set in Reconstruction-era South. It follows Johnny (Bobby Driscoll), a young boy who stays with his mother (Ruth Warrick) for an indefinite period of time at his grandmother’s plantation. Meanwhile, his father, a newspaper man whose controversial articles have put a strain on his marriage, returns to Atlanta to work. Johnny, missing his father, finds comfort in his friendship with Uncle Remus, and Remus, a storyteller of some repute, eases Johnny’s loneliness by regaling him with the adventures of Br’er Rabbit and his archenemies, Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear. These stories of Br’er Rabbit’s multiple out-wittings of the none-too-bright carnivores determined to turn him into supper were the movie’s inspiration, and they occupy the heart of the film, in expertly animated sequences, some of which, including the legendary “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” scene, seamlessly incorporate live-action characters.

Nearly two decades later, Disney would spin gold out of a live action-animated hybrid tale of father-sick little ones seeking solace in the company of a magical caretaker, with the Oscar-winning Mary Poppins. Compared to that whimsical and ingenious exercise in family melodrama, Johnny’s story never feels like anything more than an hour-long wrapper for a series of animated shorts. To be blunt, the live action is dramatically inert (and crippled all the more by Driscoll’s charmlessness). The Disney studio of this era didn’t always pull its dramatic punches (see Bambi), so it’s uncharacteristic and surprising that nothing ever seems to be at stake in Song of the South: Johnny’s neighbor, Ginny (Luana Patten), gives him a puppy after her bully-brothers threaten to drown it; his mother forces him to return it; he gives it to Remus instead; eventually Johnny’s mother discovers their deception, and the puppy then gets returned, only to end up eventually back in Johnny’s hands. As far as I can tell, the puppy plot provides Song of the South with the extent of its dramatic heft. In a late attempt to ratchet up the dramatic tension, Johnny’s mom eventually turns Remus out for being a bad influence. Johnny chases his friend as he drives away and the child gets run over by a bull, an accident hamfistedly foreshadowed in the first act. Since, unlike Bambi, there is no risk of tragedy here, however, Johnny’s brush with death plays only as a deus ex machina that principally serves to reunite his fractured family and redeem an unjustly exiled Uncle Remus.

If the quality of its live-action segments were the sole basis for an evaluation of its worth—and keep in mind, the movie is two-thirds live action—Song of the South would hardly be discussed some six decades after it was made. Yet Disney fans continue to clamor for the film’s DVD release, not out of nostalgia for Johnny and his puppy drama but instead, surely, because of the movie’s typically expert animated realization of the Uncle Remus tales. It is no surprise that the references from the film that persist in the culture are those to Br’er Fox, Bear, and Rabbit, to “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” and to Br’er Rabbit’s “laughing place.” Song of the South has endured in the collective memory mostly as an animated film.

Whatever the charms of those animated sequences, though, they are partly to blame for the movie’s negative reputation. In one of Remus’s stories, Br’er Fox constructs a literal “tar baby” that he uses to trap Br’er Rabbit. He assumes correctly that the rabbit will ask the “tar baby” “how do you do,” and become disturbed, to the point of hitting it, by its failure to respond. Br’er Rabbit is thus unable to escape once he touches the tar and must then rely on yet another clever ruse to avert his near-certain demise. By contemporary standards, of course, the tar baby trope is singularly loaded and problematic, to the point that representations of this sequence in Splash Mountain have replaced the tar baby with an ideologically neutral beehive—yet another gesture toward sweeping Song of the South’s most troubling aspects under the rug.

If only that were the extent of it. Neal Gabler, writing about Song of the South in his Walt Disney biography, argues that Disney was not a racist, but that he did suffer from a certain “racial insensitivity” typical of the era. As evidence, Gabler cites the jive-talking crows in Dumbo and the gap-toothed centaur-slave who was later excised (Disney always managing its brand) from the Pastoral Symphony segment of Fantasia. Surprisingly, the studio’s vague proclivity for racial insensitivity has outlived Walt himself: as recently as The Lion King, at least a few critics complained about the unwise decision to have all of the movie’s villainous hyenas voiced by actors of color—and to give the antagonist, Scar, a black mane. The hyenas are just the most recent iteration of a form of racial coding that has persisted since Bambi’s crows and Br’er Rabbit, Bear, and Fox, each of whom was also voiced by an actor of color. Admittedly, wily Br’er Rabbit is something of a hero (the same cannot be said of nefarious Br’er Fox or dim-witted Br’er Bear). But even so, the racial coding of the vocal performances is squirm-inducing, to say the least. “Wai a minute Br’er Rabbit,” Br’er Fox tells his prey, “Maybe I betters ‘splain somtin to you. I says, I’s gonna roast ya. On that fai...”

This kind of racial insenstivity hardly distinguishes Song of the South from the rest of the Disney oeuvre. So why is the Disney company so afraid of Song of the South? The answer seems to lie most squarely in its idyllic representation of a Reconstruction-era plantation and the attending charges that the film’s depiction of its black characters reifies all-too-familiar stereotypes. At one point, Aunt Tempy (Hattie McDaniel) sings a a song while baking a pie: “Sooner or later you’re gonna be coming along/And want my cooking again.” Remus, meanwhile, croons about his desire to avoid work, inspired by the model of Br’er Opossum: “I can’t see nothin’ wrong/While other folks is worryin’/I’m sleeping all day long.” It takes little effort to characterize Tempy and Remus as mammy and Uncle Tom figures, respectively (indeed, the movie was released in Italy under the title The Stories of Uncle Tom). They are content to live on a white-owned plantation and to care for the plantation owner’s white grandson; they accept this lot with a smile and a song. And despite being inhabited by Oscar-winning actors (McDaniel made history with her win for Gone with the Wind; Baskett received a non-competitive award for his performance as Remus), neither character has a believably complex inner-life. They exist only to support and advance Johnny’s hopelessly lame story.

The fact that Song of the South takes place during Reconstruction and not during the antebellum period is almost academic—based on the evidence presented onscreen, even the most attentive viewer would have a hard time placing the film historically. And whichever it occupies, it nevertheless expresses a disquieting nostalgia for a simpler time: without any explicit reference to slavery, it seems to longingly invoke an era before the war disrupted the “harmonious” social order below the Mason-Dixon line. Johnny’s and Remus’s childlike simplicity and innocence are besieged by the worldliness of his parents and the political activism of his father, whose engagement is posited as a threat to the values of home and hearth. Remus introduces the first of the Br’er Rabbit tales by telling Johnny that the stories take place “a long time ago...and if you’ll ’scuuuuse me for sayin’ so, ‘twas better all around.”

Disney was aware of the regressive naiveté of Chandler’s Uncle Remus stories. He brought the liberal screenwriter Maurice Rapf onto the writing team to help neutralize the picture’s racial representations, and made efforts to court the support of black organizations and opinion leaders. His attempts to preempt criticism of the film on racial grounds were futile. It was the source of controversy and protest upon its release and has remained so ever since.

So what is the Disney studio to do? Any good historian should decry its proclivity for self-censorship. By keeping the film locked away, Disney has preserved its reputation at the cost of cultural knowledge. Should we not watch this film, grapple with it, understand it, and have the chance, on our own, to decide whether and how it functions historically as racist? But then, even if a DVD release would be met with a fresh round of criticism, the Disney company would undoubtedly stand to profit from making the film available again. Perhaps they have a moral responsibility to refrain from earning money by selling the film to families and particularly to young children not necessarily equipped with the critical faculties required to view the film with the appropriate ideological distance. Maybe Disney has a duty to bury Song of the South. They haven’t. They have simply jettisoned those aspects of their property that they cannot stand behind and sanitized their ongoing efforts to earn revenue off of it. If this sounds objectionable, there is also something—dare I say it—quintessentially American in it: the legacy of chattel slavery and the racism enshrined by it have shaped and defined the American experience—our culture, our economy, and our history-—as much as we too often pretend otherwise and act as though we could ever somehow leave it behind us.