Feminisney: Why “Song of the South” Matters Right Now
A discussion on racism in the movie everyone knows, but very few have ever seen.
New to this series? Figure out what’s going on here!
So, this post has taken me quite a long time to write… Part of that has to do with life just getting too in the way. (Yes, life, not Pokemon! Pokemon was last week’s excuse. I’ll have to wait at least another month before I can blame my quest for a Charizard.) But, honestly, part of that has been this film cooking in my brain as I try to figure out what to say and how to say it. Because as many racist issues as Disney has throughout its films (Native Americans in Peter Pan will be discussed later, and the Jim Crow gang should never be forgot), Song of the South is the film that so universally known as racist that Disney itself has buried the film for the past 30 years, adamantly refusing to release the complete film in any home video format. Despite the film winning an Academy Award for Best Song, and an honorary Academy Award for Uncle Remus actor James Baskett, the first male black actor to receive an Oscar of any kind (it took 18 more years for Sydney Poitier to win for Best Actor).
So, why would Disney hide this film? (Admittedly, they still take some pride in it, as it’s the basis for much of Splash Mountain, but they try to stick to the aforementioned song and the cartoon segments of the film.) Just how bad could this film be? And that’s what I want to talk about. First, let me sum up the film for you.
Song of the South, despite it being on the list of movies by Walt Disney Animation, is largely live action. It is perhaps the first feature-length film to fully integrate the amazing kind of technology of actors interacting with animation. This was a hugely influential step in cinema, leading not only to classic films like Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Mary Poppins, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but also forming the basis for our more modern CGI-fests. Same principle, different process. The film itself is clearly set in the American South during the 1800s… but whether it’s before, during, or after the American Civil War is never clearly stated, and will come back up later. The story focuses on a white family (7-year-old boy Johnny and his parents John Sr. and Sally), along with their black… servant?… Aunt Tempy, visiting the boy’s grandmother at her plantation. And then, in the most insanely dramatic and ridiculous fashion, we’re told the father must return to Atlanta for work. And this is apparently devastating, not only to Sally who needs her husband, but to poor Johnny who seems to think the world will end without his father’s constant presence. Johnny threatens to run away and find his father if his father leaves… and surprisingly tries to follow up on that promise. He is discovered by the old black man Uncle Remus, who is filled with stories not unlike Aesop’s Fables, stories about Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear. In the stories, Rabbit is constantly a target of prey mostly for Fox, and later for Bear who more wants revenge than food, and must use his wiles to avoid being eaten. The stories reflect events happening in real life, to a degree, and Johnny manages to become less upset over his father’s absence. That is, until his mother Sally feels Uncle Remus is filling Johnny’s head with nonsense and tells him to stay away from Johnny. So Remus, distraught, plans to move to Atlanta. Seeing Remus riding away, Johnny chases after him, through the bull’s field, and is attacked by the bull. He is given bed rest with no one knowing if he’ll recover. Johnny’s father ends up returning, Remus returns as well, Johnny gets better, and everything is zip-a-dee-doo-dah-dandy.
(I’m telling you basically the whole story because, well, it’s not likely you’ll ever see this film, to be honest.)
This part would be where I usually put up the list, but this film defies the list a bit… so here are the list highlights: There are three named women (Sally, Aunt Tempy, and Ginny, and I swear the grandma’s name is said but I could never tell, and IMDb just calls her grandma, so…). Aunt Tempy is a woman of color, and one of three named people of color, the others being Uncle Remus and a young boy befriending Johnny, Toby. The film might pass the Bechdel Test, but I’m fairly certain most every conversation the named women have is either about the boy Johnny or his father. And you could consider the matriarchal grandmother, the plantation owner, to be the woman of power, if power structures were ever discussed by the film. And that’s about it.
Some of the minor things include the Favers boys calling Johnny a girl as an insult, specifically taunting him for wearing lace, the girl Ginny being shown as overly emotional on the crying/whining spectrum when her clothes are dirtied, and the boys being shown as overly emotional on the more violent spectrum, getting into a fist fight. For feminism, this definitely isn’t the stalwart defender.
But the racism is the really standout issue here. It’s what the movie is known for, after all. And yet… watching it, your average consumer might have trouble figuring out what the problem is. I mean, it’s no D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation where black men are played by white men in black face and shown as rapists terrorizing white women. It’s no Triumph of Will-esque jingoist/racial propaganda. Heck, it’s not even a Donald Trump presidential candidacy announcement speech. There isn’t an obvious negative light people of color are being painted in.
What the film is doing, however, is what I’m reluctantly calling “positive racism” because I couldn’t think of a better term to truly show the contrast. The previous examples I gave would be “negative racism” — specifically, moments in which non-whites are deliberately and blatantly given negative characteristics in order to demean or belittle them in comparison to the superior white race. These are the most obvious moments of racism, usually found in caricature and stereotype (the absent black father, the terrorist Arab, the gangster Hispanic, etc.). What “positive racism” does is it cleans everything up all nice and shiny and pretends the problem doesn’t actually exist.
This may start to sound relevant to current events and modern American society.
What Song of the South did specifically is made the issue of black/white economic and status disparity… a complete non-issue. They don’t discuss it and refuse to acknowledge it in any way — almost. In fact, the blacks in the film are looking and sounding happy, smiling, telling stories, laughing, singing songs… and that’s incredibly problematic. Remember before when I mentioned the timeline wasn’t exactly clear? According to some Googling, it takes place AFTER the US Civil War. …but there is no indication of that. We see the first black Academy Award winner Hattie McDaniel, who won for her role as the head slave Mammy in Gone with the Wind, playing… a servant in a leadership position. We hear about a plantation. We see blacks working, wearing clothing that is obviously dirty and tattered and poorly crafted. We see them living in cheap, small residences. Some of these clues might suggest slavery’s been abolished… I mean, there’s no whipping, no picking cotton… but whites clearly still have dominion over blacks. Sally was so upset that Uncle Remus was talking to her son that she forbade contact between them. She essentially decided the black man was dangerous. She drove him from his home. And yet, smiling, laughing, and telling songs, obeying the white folk and refusing to speak your mind to them… that’s the way it should be. Not to mention, the three black characters are depicted as generally less educated.
Now, some of this could be chalked up to the time in which it took place. Yes, after the Civil War, blacks were still, especially in the South, largely undereducated and less than wealthy. Being freshly out of slavery can do that. But that’s why the movie is so problematic. It depicts the issues… and then decides they’re not really issues. It puts on a fake veneer of equality to gloss over the obvious and blatant disparity.
This is the part where I will start to be really controversial and some will accuse me of being a “Social Justice Warrior.” Though I doubt that applies to anyone reading this, since this is part of a series about feminism. Doesn’t tend to attract that type of person.
Song of the South is an important film to discuss today because these issues exist today. And it seems that we have perhaps as a society forgotten why they’re issues. If you think only a millennial SJW would care about “positive racism,” think again. Song of the South caused protests when it came out in 1946. People back then knew it was problematic. Even Walt Disney himself knew there were possible issues. He originally hired Jewish liberal Maurice Rapf to write the script with Dalton Reymond. One of the big reasons why Rapf was hired was because Walt wanted him to tone down Reymond’s “Southern slant”. Rapf worried that the film would end up resembling an Uncle Tom situation, with Uncle Remus being subservient and docile toward white characters. (Surprise! He wasn’t wrong.) But Walt reportedly told him, “That’s exactly why I want you to work on it, because I know that you don’t think I should make the movie. You’re against Uncle Tomism, and you’re a radical.” Rapf was later removed from the project due to conflicts between Reymond.
And why is this important today? Why is glossing over the issues and suffering of a minority group and pretending everything is alright relevant to right now? Well, perhaps you’ve heard, but for the past several years, there’s been a movement growing in prominence known as Black Lives Matter. And with every civil rights issue, there has been a counter-movement growing as well. They refer to themselves as All Lives Matter. To the Black Lives Matter group, black people in America are currently suffering from issues disproportionately affecting them (specifically, police killings). To the All Lives Matter group, there is absolutely nothing wrong here. Blacks are being killed more because they’re more often criminals. Because they aren’t obeying cops. Because that’s a risk society takes. And what about all the white people being shot by cops? And what about black on black crime? There is no issue here. Black lives are equal to white lives, and we could all live in harmony if you’d just stop complaining and smile and sing your happy songs.
The last bit is a bit of hyperbole on my part, but I think you can see the relation. And if you want a more blatant example, look no further than darling of the conservative movements Phil Robertson. He’s the patriarch of the Duck Dynasty family, a very Southern and very conservative bunch. He has gone through a number of controversies due to his various statements, and three years ago, he made quite the statement regarding black people. When discussing the relative happiness of the black community before the Civil Rights movement, Phil said:
I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’ — not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.
They were “singing and happy.” Now, as anyone with a simple high school education should be able to tell you, the black community was not entirely happy after the Civil War and before the Civil Rights Movement. Segregation, race killings, the Ku Klux Klan, being denied the vote… the Civil Rights Movement was born of dissatisfaction. And it was not just a small group of black people making a ruckus. It was fairly nationwide.
Now, Phil is an older fellow, and you may notice in your life that the elderly have… skewed… views of race relations in America. Especially white people that lived before the Civil Rights Movement. But this type of thinking is not limited to the racist grandpas of America. This type of thinking is not a relic of 1946 Walt Disney films. This week, the Republican National Convention has been waltzing out people left and right to scrub clean the idea that blacks are suffering. To literally shout “All Lives Matter.” One of America’s two major political parties has officially taken the stance that blacks in America have no issues that need special racial discussion (except, of course, the favorite distraction: black on black crime). To the RNC, Song of the South seems like a decent film that did nothing wrong.
To be honest, I wish more people could watch this film so we could see how backwards we’ve gotten as a nation. So we could discuss why the movie does, or SHOULD, make us feel kind of uncomfortable and awkward. So we can talk about how white people can so easily gloss over the issues of non-whites, can so easily see their neighbor’s house burning and rush to make sure the embers don’t injure their garden. Humans, regardless of race, are often self-centered. Privileged humans with power moreso than most. We subconsciously assume that everyone’s equal, that everything’s fine, that no one is more special than anyone else.
But maybe we could take a lesson from young Johnny, spend some time talking to a black person, and trying to learn lessons about the issues they face. Maybe if Uncle Remus had talked to Johnny about racial poverty and segregation in the South after the Civil War, Song of the South would’ve been more compelling. America should learn from Disney’s racial mistakes. After 70 years, maybe we can keep walking forward instead of running back to “the good ol’ days.” Because, let’s remember: Those days weren’t even close to good for everyone. And if all lives truly do matter, then maybe we should take some time and talk to lives different from our own and try to figure out how to improve them.