Figure i. Song of the South (Foster and Jackson 1946)
Song of the South (Foster and Jackson 1946) has long since been a thorn in the side of The Walt Disney Company. While the CEO, Bob Iger recently announced the entire Disney film library would be available for streaming on their Disney Plus platform, they have recently announced that Song of the South will not be included (Bakare 2019). The company have had a moratorium on the distribution of the film since it was last released in 1986. The film is controversial and has been criticised for its depiction of race in its historical setting (Singer 2016).
However, Song of the South is not the only Disney film that has been criticised for its depiction of race. The same announcement also revealed that Disney would be removing a scene from Dumbo (Sharpsteen 1941) that has been considered to be racially-insensitive (Harp 2019). Other, newer, entries in the Disney canon have been denounced for their representation of race. Aladdin has been criticised for its orientalist depiction of the Middle East (Bitchmedia 2017), and Pocahontas has been criticised for the way it portrays the historical figure Pocahontas (Nye 2015). So why is Song of the South such a problematic film for Disney, to the extent that they have all but disavowed the film?
The film has been defended as a ‘product of its time’ (Sperb 2010), insinuating the film is being unfairly criticised for depicting race relations in a way that was acceptable upon its release. However, this is not necessarily accurate. The film was criticised upon release by the NAACP, who condemned it as presenting a “dangerously glorified picture of slavery” (Korkis 2005). The film’s depiction of what is ostensibly this time period is a common criticism and one of the reasons why it remains so controversial today.
The source material for Song of the South is the Uncle Remus Tales by Joel Chandler Harris, which were based on stories he was told by enslaved people in his youth (Flusche 1975). While Song of the South is officially set during the post-Civil War Reconstruction period, after the abolition of slavery (Singer 2016), the film is not explicit about its historical setting. It is easy to assume the film is set during the time of slavery, mainly due to its plantation setting. The only clear indication that the film is set during the reconstruction period is that Uncle Remus is free to leave the plantation. This ambiguity was identified as problematic even before the film was released (Inge 2012). Slavery was abject horror for those who experienced it, not a time where enslaved people and plantation owners lived together idyllically.
When evaluating Song of the South, it is essential to remember the perspective the story is being told from. From its inception as the Uncle Remus Tales, these are African-American narratives being re-told by white filmmakers and writers. Both Joel Chandler Harris and Walt Disney, the producer of Song of the South were white men. In 1946 when Song of the South was released, Jim Crow segregation laws were still in effect in the Southern United States. The depiction of pastness in the film itself comes from the past – we are looking at the reconstruction period through the prism of 1940s America. The civil rights movement that ended segregation began in the 1940s, with some pointing to World War II as a catalyst for this (McDermott 2018). Micheal Inge (2012) pointed to the intention not to cause offence to northern or southern audiences as a reason why the historical setting was left ambiguous, something that perhaps caused more controversy than it headed off.
The African American characters exist only to serve the white characters of the film and their narratives and growth. Uncle Remus is a notable example of the ‘Magical Negro’, a term popularised by Spike Lee (Howard 2016). The term describes an African American character whose primary purpose is to serve, support and uplift a white character, often using supernatural powers to do so. The magical negro stereotype has been suggested as evidence that depictions of blackness are only acceptable when portrayed in service to whiteness (Hughey 2009). The magical negro character is more of a plot device than a fleshed out fully realised character, and the racial coding of the stereotype is problematic especially when considering the historical context of the enslavement of African American people.
Song of the South employs joyful music and colourful animation to further the narrative. Combined with the ambiguous timeframe and plantation setting, this contributes to a picture of the Uncle Remus character as both devoted to supporting the young boy Johnny and being very happy to do so. This characterisation is similar to the myth of the ‘happy slave’ (Williams 2019), an extremely controversial viewpoint at odds with the brutal legacy of slavery. This has contributed to its status as a controversial film text and Disney’s subsequent decision to suppress it, as it has been seen as an ahistorical, problematic way to portray the 18th century South.
In this context, it is easy to see why Disney hasn’t released the film since 1986. However, in 1989, Disney opened an attraction based on the animated parts of the film named Splash Mountain. Devised initially for the Anaheim Disneyland park in order to repurpose audio animatronics from a previous attraction, America Sings (Weiss 2013). The attraction has since made it to other Disney parks across the world and utilises characters and stories from Song of the South, devoid of context and with absolutely no depictions of any of the live action portions of the film. In fact, before watching Song of the South, my only experience of the film was through this attraction, and I had no idea about the broader context of the film. My understanding of the film was fragmented, and it was only after watching the film I could fully understand the story of the ride.
The use of Song of the South in Splash Mountain may have stuck to the animated parts, but Disney still made edits to avoid controversy. One of the most contentious of the Uncle Remus tales is the tar baby. What was once an African American derived term to refer to a problem that would ‘stick’, the term has been used as a racial epithet in reference to African American people, and politicians have come under fire for using it in relation to the previous, metaphorical meaning. In order to avoid controversy, Disney replaced the figure of the tar baby with a jar of honey in the attraction. To me, this shows that Disney was fully conversant with the questionable content in the film at the time the attraction was being devised and were again aiming to avoid controversy, while still utilising the usable aspects of the film, divorced from their context. They have also employed this tactic with music from the film, with the finale song, ‘Zip-a-dee-doo-dah’ sometimes being used as telephone hold music for the company.
The way Disney has engaged with the film since 1986 raises questions on an ideological level about how we engage with problematic and controversial films, specifically films that depict pastness. Disney has prohibited the release of the film since 1986, and the announcement that it will not be added to Disney Plus means that the film will not see distribution in the United States in the near future. CEO of the Walt Disney Company Bob Iger was quoted in 2011 as saying “it wouldn’t be in the best interest of our shareholders to bring it back, even though there would be some financial gain” (The Hollywood Reporter 2019). From this quote, it would appear that it is a financial position the company have taken on the film in that it would not be in the interests of shareholders. It appears that Disney has not taken an ideological stance on the film’s release and therefore on how we interact with dated, problematic material, but rather have worked to suppress it almost by default, due to financial implications.
Disney’s prohibition of the distribution of the film has not stopped the debate over whether or not it should be released. There are those who believe the release of the film should be suppressed due to its controversial content. The impact the content of the film could have on children has been discussed, as young children do not have an awareness of the cultural context (Jones 2019). As a Disney film, Song of the South was intended to appeal to children. It is easy to understand why parents may not want their children to be exposed to the film. Also, as a mega-corporation with an empire encompassing theme parks, films, television, consumer products and a reputation as a family-friendly company, the films that Disney distribute are going to be very influential, and their reluctance to promote material like Song of the South is understandable from this perspective.
There is also the perspective that films depicting dated and problematic representations of race should be banned for all, not just children. In this debate, Song of the South is often grouped with films such as Gone with the Wind (Fleming 1939) and The Birth of a Nation (Griffith 1915). It has been suggested that Gone with the Wind should no longer be screened in American cinemas as it “romanticises slavery” (Shoard 2015), and The Birth of a Nation has been described as “the most racist film ever made” (Lumenick 2015), and calls for it to be banned began on its release. If we allow these films to be distributed, are we normalising their content? When we allow these works cultural space in the current day, we have to consider the relevance and attention we bring to dated and problematic films.
It could be argued that films such as Song of the South are notable for cultural or technical reasons, and should be available for the public to engage with. James Baskett who plays Uncle Remus won an Oscar for his performance; the first Oscar awarded to an African American male actor (Mitchell 2019). However, when evaluating films with questionable content as historically significant, we are exposing people to the ideas and themes they contain, which can be difficult when they contain upsetting material. Just as people have a right to access the films for their historical importance, those who the themes have directly affected have a right to be protected from upsetting material, even if it has been evaluated as significant.
There is also the argument that films from the past containing problematic content should be made available to raise awareness of the cultural attitudes of the past. Song of the South has many clips and unofficial edits available through the internet. Without an official version, there is a potential that these truncated versions of the film may be the only way people engage with it, leaving them with an inaccurate impression. This is further complicated when we consider that people may choose to edit problematic material out for political reasons, again leading people to have an opinion on the film that is not based on the official film text.
If Disney does release Song of the South, there is an opportunity for them to contextualise the film by providing context alongside the film. Whoopi Goldberg has been a vocal advocate of this approach, having been involved in providing similar context for a release of Looney Tunes cartoons containing problematic content (Jusino 2017). This appears to be the approach many advocate for, as it does not hide the problematic past of the material and offers an opportunity for education.
When considering Song of the South, it may seem that a contextualised release is the best solution to move forward. As technology and social values progress, we must consider how we handle content that may become problematic in the future. Recently, an episode of The Simpsons was pulled from distribution due to it featuring Michael Jackson, recently embroiled in scandal (Marsh 2019). While it’s understandable that public mood will impact the distribution of media, we may be in a position where it’s impossible to view media that is seen as problematic, which is particularly concerning when we consider multi-media conglomerates like Disney will be at the head of the decisions, more likely to be guided by profit than civic duty.
However, I am firmly of the belief that those who will be impacted by exposure to such material, are protected and insulated from exposure to it. Problematic works are often shunned by public opinion, and it should not be the work of cultural scholars to re-centre work that has been soundly rejected. We must also consider that in the current political climate, some will reject any commentary or supplementary material contextualising the work and will connect with the content. This does not mean that we must abandon efforts to contextualise and apply blanket censorship, but it does mean that this is delicate careful work. We must look at any problematic work individually, and work to minimise harm any release may cause. If we do not do this, we render the exercise pointless.
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Edmonds, S. (2019) Br’er Rabbit Merchandise, Disneyland. JPEG File
Edmonds, S. (2019) Splash Mountain, Disneyland. JPEG File
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