Song of the South - Review, Part II
The past can hurt, but the way I see it, you can either run from it or learn from it.
— Rafiki, The Lion King
Whenever we think of Song of the South, the first thing that may likely pop up is ‘racism.’
That’s what I thought before I had the lucky opportunity to see Song of the South after only hearing about the movie and its alleged infamy among African Americans. I’ll admit that it was not as harmful or discriminatory as other filmgoers suggested. Instead, it felt surprisingly vague about its race relations. However, some elements of the film felt a bit too standard, mainly in its live-action portions and characters. Yet, James Baskett’s performance, the animated segments, and the movie’s technical innovations strengthened its reputation among animation historians.
But it wasn’t so with the rest of its viewers. For many years, especially around its release in 1946, critics and audiences felt a little turned off by the movie’s portrayal of African Americans, criticizing the stereotypical speech patterns and mannerisms displayed by the actors in the film. They also felt that its background set in the Reconstruction era, complete with black communities near a white plantation, didn’t help. The heated response to this artistic flaw persisted over the years, and the controversy surrounding Song of the South intensified after the Civil Rights Movement unfolded throughout America in the 1960s.
Similarly, around that time, Fantasia’s segment, The Pastoral Symphony, had a scene where the centuarettes were tended to by what looked like a black centaurette named Sunflower, whose exaggerated features and general impression in the segment evoked distaste among moviegoers. So, after the late 1960s, Fantasia was rereleased with the character removed from The Pastoral Symphony. However, curiosity over this character continued to blossom throughout the 2000s once Fantasia fans caught on to this character’s existence.
In Song of the South’s case, it still had a healthy life in theatrical reruns, being released once every several years throughout the 20th century. However, its last theatrical run occurred in 1986, 40 years after its original release, and over 36 years ago as of this writing. However, despite Song of the South’s theatrical life being cut off, its legacy continued through an attraction constructed at Walt Disney World in the late 1980s and early 1990s called Splash Mountain. For over 30 years, this attraction dazzled participants with its humble, swamp-like adventures on the rails, with Song of the South’s music, including the iconic ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,’ being played.
However, a couple of years ago, Disney announced that Splash Mountain’s ‘Song of the South’ themes would be replaced with those of The Princess and the Frog. Like Song of the South, it also starred a black lead character set in the American South. The difference, however, is that Princess and the Frog is a more fairy tale-esque movie, taking elements of The Frog Prince and formulating them into an animated musical in the reigns of Disney’s hits from the late 1980s and early 1990s, including The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.
Don’t get me wrong; I like The Princess and the Frog very much. I have seen it several times and find it a charming and magical film. It has creative twists on the Frog Prince mythos, a compelling female lead, some terrific tunes, a fantastic villain, and excellent animation. The animation was made even more remarkable because this was part of John Lasseter’s plan to resurrect 2D hand-drawn animation at a time when 3D animation was everywhere, mainly thanks to Pixar. Unfortunately, now that I think about it, we’re in yet another period of 2D hand-drawn animation shortage, so we need another 2D hand-drawn animated film to compete against computer-animated films like The Princess and the Frog. When will it come?
Anyway, because The Princess and the Frog became so successful over the years, the idea of a theme park attraction with this film as its theme sounded like a no-brainer. However, when it was finally announced, I was discouraged because Disney planned to replace the already-classic themes of Splash Mountain, including the beloved songs, with those of The Princess and the Frog, which had more of a positive portrayal of African American leads. Now, the positive portrayal in question isn’t a bad thing. I encourage continuous representation among ethnic groups in film and television. And even in real life, I would treat black people as much as normal human beings as we all should. But what turned me off about this arrangement was the idea of Disney aiming for something more profitable over something that had gradually become acknowledged as flawed but not deserving of such scorn instead of allowing them to coexist.
Tell me, which Splash Mountain film theme is more to your liking? A film that, despite its flaws, unveiled elements of universal truths? Or an animated fairy tale film that is as strong artistically as it is in market value?
Before I forget, it’s not just Fantasia or Song of the South that drew criticism and media attention for its allegedly stereotypical portrayal of African Americans. Another film from Disney that received as much heat for its racial caricatures, if not more so than Song of the South, was Dumbo. That film introduced us to a flock of crows who helped Dumbo and Timothy Mouse after Dumbo might have unknowingly found his gift of flight with his ears. They were a cheerful group of tricksters, but many people were more attentive to the racial slurs and inconsistent speech patterns apparent in each of them. Not helping matters was that the flock leader was named Jim Crow, after the Jim Crow laws of the early 20th century. The Jim Crow laws played a part in prohibiting African Americans from having equal access to what all the other white Americans had back in the day.
As for me, I watched Dumbo many times as a kid. And frankly, whether I knew of their connections or not, I still have a soft spot for them because of their eclectic deliveries, movements, and unique ideology in the magic feather to motivate Dumbo to pursue flying with his ears. But, of course, back in the 1940s, everyday racism against black people was still a thing, and even mainstream classics like Yankee Doodle Dandy and Holiday Inn had moments where their main leads put on blackface performances. So, in cases of films like these, many African Americans have been portrayed as slightly foolish and willfully obedient servants to the white people, whether they were enslaved or not. And Song of the South is no exception.
However, it’s not just the racial caricatures prevalent in Dumbo or Disney’s films around that era. In both Dumbo and So Dear to My Heart, Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten’s following movie in 1949, a group of black people was shown nestling in the train cars and getting off to help with a variety of tasks, such as offloading the luggage and, in Dumbo’s case, helping set up the circus. Many people looking at these scenes, or even listening to the song “Roustabouts,” may look down on them as just another example of glorified servitude with little to no compensation for all their work. Even the lyrics of “Roustabouts” got in on this assessment!
Be that as it may, some hints showed that Disney was more accepting of black people than their finished products would lead us to believe. For example, Disney hired a black band from the Hall Johnson choir to provide the voices for the crows, except for Jim Crow, who was voiced by Cliff Edwards. And I’m just going to say it; I thought he was terrific in that role, just like he was as Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio. And fortunately, they all worked together just fine as Disney provided them with as much care as if they were white. Even one of the animators of Dumbo, Floyd Norman, Disney’s first-ever black animator, said so in his interview about Disney+’s then-controversial decision to exclude the Jim Crow scenes in Dumbo. Of course, this was before the massive outcry had Disney change its mind and wisely include alongside the movie a disclamatory introduction notifying viewers about what they’d see in the film and how it was different at its release from how it is today. Norman thought the Jim Crow characters were delightful and believed that anyone saying they were racist caricatures of black people might not be looking at them the right way. All that mattered to him was that the animators and band members had a blast with the characters, and he thought they were fine as they were.
Not only that, but Walt Disney was awestruck when he saw James Baskett as he performed as Uncle Remus for Song of the South. Disney thought he excelled in conveying his character with the right warmth and storytelling dignity necessary to pull off the role perfectly. Disney was so amazed that he wrote to the then-President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Jean Hersholt, to award James Baskett an Honorary Oscar for his contributions to the movie, which, shortly afterward, he did. But part of that may be because Baskett was in poor health at the time, and Disney considered rewarding Baskett this way once he acknowledged that. James Basket went on to receive his Honorary Oscar in 1947 but died the year after.
Around the time Song of the South was released in 1946, plenty of racial groups banded together to plant stories into Song of the South’s reputation, deeming it an automatically offensive and disrespectful film portraying African Americans as lesser than the white people living amongst them. That told me that despite some controversy surrounding the portrayals of black Americans in Song of the South being justified, these responses make me look at Song of the South less as a controversial film and more as a political scapegoat.
Most of all, once Song of the South started being put in hot water the same way we see it today, James Baskett and Hattie McDaniel defended the film. They expressed their support for the film and felt it was excellent, with nary a discriminatory aspect against black people in sight. Hattie McDaniel said she’d rather play a maid than be one, and James Baskett thought the political accusations against Song of the South contributed to the misrepresentation of black people, not the movie itself.
Vocal support like this regarding Song of the South demonstrated the potential fellowship behind the scenes, despite the finished product assuming otherwise. Or rather, despite the moviegoers believing otherwise.
Before I forget, do you believe that because Hattie McDaniel’s character, Aunt Tempe, did household chores around the house for Johnny’s (white) family in the American South, it automatically labels her as a damaging caricature of black people in servitude? Well, let me tell you the difference between a slave and a maid:
One is paid for as property and ordered around 24/7, while the other is paid to tend to property with more accommodating orders.
Heck, one maid from Disney that I’m very accustomed to is Nanny from One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Though her background outside Roger and Anita’s lifestyle wasn’t delved into much, she’s still a funny, entertaining, and likable character who seemed to get around with her comedic intake on suspicious circumstances.
Even Katie from Meet Me in St. Louis, for Heaven’s sake! She, too, got around with comedic wisecracks over general situations. Because of this, she felt as interesting and memorable as Esther, Tootie, and the rest of their family. Esther even explicitly mentioned that they paid her for her services around the house. That has to amount to something.
So, in the case of both films, if the maid can be a knockout characteristically and also tend to be treated partially as family, then who’s to say Aunt Tempe is a lesser case just because she’s a black woman living in the American South with a white family?
Besides, if Aunt Tempe was a slave, then in the time she’d spent on the plantation, she would’ve joined up with the nearby black communities and Uncle Remus and reminisced about their hometown in Africa or something. But not so in Aunt Tempe’s case. Sure, she had the nearby boys tend to Johnny more than once, but she came across more as a worker tending to the property while Johnny’s family was busy with other things. Even when Uncle Remus stopped by at the plantation’s kitchen, he wasn’t treated by Aunt Tempe as a fellow slave but as a guest instead. It connotated a subtle role of authority on her part since she’s part of the family regarding how they tended their household together.
With this in mind, ask any maid you know, whether white, black, or whatever, and ask them how they feel about their jobs. Are they content enough with what they’ve done? And what would they say if they compared what they did, and how, to what was accomplished under bondage?
Most of all, let’s take a closer look at the original stories on which Song of the South was based. Generally called Uncle Remus’s stories, they were full of imaginary characters that each served as entertaining folklore tales rather than meaningful fables. And the stories starred more than just Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear. They also introduced all kinds of characters, including Br’er Possum, Br’er Wolf, etc. And contrary to what you would’ve thought about the author, Joel Chandler Harris, he was not a black man but a shy, white author.
Yet, if you look even deeper into the stories’ history, you’ll notice that they had ties stemming as far back as African folklore.
As a young boy, Joel Chandler Harris remembered hearing stories shared among his family’s enslaved black people while they all worked on their plantation. After working as a journalist and then as a newspaper columnist, he wrote his stories of Uncle Remus and became an overnight sensation. However, much like JD Salinger after The Catcher in the Rye was published, he was primarily a recluse, even more so after his Uncle Remus stories were published.
I consider this detail about Harris’ childhood most essential. Although he and his stories were famous, or infamous, for his creative dialect among black people, he didn’t fabricate the stories he shared with the public under the Uncle Remus pseudonym. Instead, if you’ll pardon the expression, he indirectly relayed these stories straight from the horses’ mouths. So, when the Reconstruction left any negotiations between the USA and the demolished Confederacy uncertain, the Uncle Remus stories served as a bridge between whites and blacks; the stories gave White Americans a fascinating glimpse into the Black Americans’ sense of culture and backgrounds.
Even the controversial Tar Baby, which Br’er Rabbit ended up getting physically entangled with, also stemmed from African folklore instead of merely resembling a negative caricature of African Americans, as many people thought it was. In other words, the one movie from Disney that many people leaped ahead and declared discriminatory against African Americans ironically had ties to the stories expressing shreds of African culture in their creative bloodstream.
Not only that, but as I pointed out, you’d notice that absolutely none of the characters mentioned the Civil War, slavery, or even diminished each other racially. Even though the black communities being nestled alongside the white plantation may question many of its viewers, none of the characters ever treated any black people with discrimination. Even Jake and Joe, the likeliest characters you’d have expected to yell out racist remarks about Johnny being together with Toby, just picked on them like they would’ve picked on any other kid.
Surprisingly, this reminded me of when Adelia from The Owl House disapproved of her daughter, Amity, getting together with her girlfriend, Luz, but only because she thought Luz was a criminal and not out of homophobia.
And when Johnny’s mother became suspicious of Uncle Remus’s activities around Johnny and gave him some talking-to’s about his involvement in Johnny’s life, I didn’t notice any shred of racism in her reprimands. She could easily have told him something like...
Johnny belongs with me and our family, not yours!
Whatever you’re trying to teach my son, it will do littler good than what we do in the family!
…or other remarks like that. But no, Sally never said things like that to Remus. To me, her reprimands against him felt less like racial discrimination and more like ‘stranger danger’ accusations. So it begs me to question you: Everything she said to Uncle Remus about his affairs with Johnny, would they have felt any different if they were told to a white man? Because that’s the impression I got out of those scenes.
There were, of course, very few moments of relationships between whites and blacks that would be seen as ethically questionable. For instance, when Johnny and his family finally arrived at the grandmother’s plantation home, the grandmother ordered Toby to tend to the visitors. And one of the older black men was seen offloading the luggage from their carriage. But again, they never said what these black people were to them. So, as I said earlier, this may productively or unintentionally invite discussions on how white people treated black people back in the American South in the late 1800s, as well as ponder how they compared to how they treated them before the Civil War.
Whatever your thoughts on it may be, there is so much eye-opening stuff to relay and dig up about Song of the South that to refrain from showing it to anyone, whether for entertainment or educational purposes, may do more harm than good. What would the general response be if you showed this movie to the casual white family in America today? How about the average Black family? Or the Asians? Or the LGBTQ communities? Native Americans? Republicans? Democrats? Children? Adults? Teenagers? All those responses alone are worth assessing and picking up from in terms of what their thoughts on Song of the South could be. Some may see this as an offensive film that does everything wrong, while others may look at it and say that it deserves more recognition than ever since its shelving from the public eye. And no matter who says it, the point is to motivate discussions about the movie, its legacy, its origins, and where this stands in mainstream media today, as I am with you guys.
Knowledge is power, but withholding it isn’t.
You know, while my mind is still fresh on it, let me enlighten you with another story concerning Floyd Norman.
In the 1980s, Disney ran an annual comic strip around Christmastime, which starred any of Disney’s trademark characters as they enacted a variety of festive scenarios. So naturally, being one of Disney’s artists, Floyd Norman was given the go-ahead to publish his comic strip into Disney’s Christmas publishing foray. And which franchise did he choose to portray? Song of the South.
Why did he pick that one? Because he, his family, and even the black community within which he grew up in California all remembered liking the movie. That’s right, despite some of the questionable elements in the film concerning black people, they didn’t have a problem with it. Instead, they enjoyed it for what it accomplished.
It inspired Norman to anonymously do a Christmas comic starring Song of the South’s characters, even if the Disney executives felt skittish about publishing comics starring characters from a movie as controversial as Song of the South. Nevertheless, they published the comic, and it invited no negative repercussions whatsoever.
As Norman slyly remarked:
I wish I could have seen their faces when they were informed that the writer was black.
And on 2017, Disney compiled all the Christmas comics ever published, including those from the eighties, into a hardcover book entitled Disney’s Christmas Classics. Sadly, all the comics were gathered in this collection except for one.
Take one guess which Christmas comic strip did not make the cut in being re-published.
That’s right. It was the Song of the South strip, written by a black person. And not just any black person, but Floyd Norman, one of Disney’s first-ever black animators. And in desperation to avoid offending black people, Disney disregarded controversial works that black artists happened to also have done.
Do you see where this doesn’t add up? Not to mention how hypocritical it all sounds?
With that in mind, if you think that because of Song of the South’s controversial reputation with its portrayal of black people, it would automatically be offensive to every black person alive, think again.
How about the Black Americans who like Song of the South, like Floyd Norman? What do they have to say about Song of the South? What reasons do they have for enjoying it?
Instead of ignoring them as if to say, no, they’re not worth listening to, listen to them. Listen to them and think about why they liked Song of the South the way they did despite its questionable elements.
In fact…think hard about this as well.
How about the Black Americans who like the crows in Dumbo? Or how about the Native Americans who enjoy the Indian tribe in Peter Pan, down to the song, ‘What Makes the Red Man Red’? Or the Asians who have a soft spot for the ‘Siamese-if-you-please’ cats in Lady and the Tramp? I do not deny that these caricatures may potentially be in bad taste for each ethnic group I speak of. And even people among such ethnic groups would be right to point out the creative flaws apparent in their caricatures if they brought it up themselves. But that doesn’t mean the expressions of outrage in response to it apply to everyone within each ethnic group. There may be some people among them who enjoy them regardless.
And if you hear such people as those, don’t shun them or accuse them of liking something you believe they shouldn’t like because of its derogatory implications. Instead, listen to them and think about why they enjoy it. Chances are, whatever they have to say about them and whatever input they can offer may open our eyes to another angle of film criticism over something so controversial.
That should be – no, must be – worth consideration.
I can only see these characters being truly harmful stereotypes if they were all there to be made fun of like they’re no more than ethnic punching bags. But no, generally, they were the good guys and always helped out the heroes. So, it sheds a positive light on them, even if parts of it correlated to their race.
The only villainous examples that come to mind are the Siamese Cats, and even their habits had nothing to do with racial relations. They were nothing more than sneaky, conniving troublemakers who made things harder for Lady, and their ethnic resemblances felt like no more than an afterthought.
At this rate, I feel like although I can’t entirely agree with the retheming of Splash Mountain, I think the forthcoming Princess and the Frog applications might be a decent way to go for Walt Disney World. As long as Song of the South is given its much-needed release while this is going on, the Princess and the Frog fans can relish the movie and Splash Mountain, while longtime Song of the South aficionados can enjoy the film on its own terms. That’s my proposition, anyway.
With racial issues being the primary concern nowadays, especially after the George Floyd murder, there needs to be something to open our eyes outside of just giving African American communities what they suddenly believe may be ‘overdue’ exposure in media. Whereas I think the African American communities have already had a voice for the past 50 years or so, have they not?
I believe that showing Song of the South to anyone in times of racial crises such as this is more crucial than they’d think. Whatever opinions they may walk away with after watching this movie, it’s more important to look at this otherwise banned movie and gather your own thoughts on the matter.
Many people loved The Catcher in the Rye for its intimate portrayal of childhood, while others condemned it for its language. Likewise, Game of Thrones was celebrated as an epic piece of television but also drew complaints due to its sexual nature and its unhealthy reliance on violence and gore, especially on its more likable characters. In both cases, however, they’re all available, and everyone can decide what they value or hate about them.
The same should be done with such titles as Song of the South.
If you’re reading this, Disney, I want you to know that your intentions to strengthen your marketing catalogs and reach out to as many ethnic groups as possible are understandable. But as you gear up for your 100th anniversary, you need to remember why the company was here in the first place. That includes shedding light on some of its more obscure or faulty aspects of history, like Song of the South. Some truths may not be pretty or easy to stomach, but if you continue hiding them from the public and insisting they never happened, it may lead to nasty consequences about the validity of history, as well as what counts as widely accepted accounts of your history.
Now that I’ve shared my thoughts on Song of the South, it’s your turn. See this movie for yourself and tell me, your friends, your family, whoever you desire, what do you think of Song of the South? Do you think it’s racist? Or do you think that it’s far from resembling what the filmgoers accused this movie of being? Discussions such as this are vital in paving the way for the more prosperous future we seek.
Getting back to you, though, Disney, as the 100th-anniversary celebrations unfold and are yours to be honored with, think long and hard about my biggest question to you:
Hasn’t Song of the South been swept under the rug long enough?
A low B+
Disney Legend Floyd Norman Defends "Dumbo" Crow Scene Amid Rumors of Potential Censorship. LaughingPlace.com. (2019, April 30). Retrieved January 5, 2023, from https://www.laughingplace.com/w/news/2019/04/30/floyd-norman-defends-dumbo-crow-scene-amid-rumors-potential-censorship/
Harris, J. C., & Chase, R. (2002). The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus. Houghton Mifflin Co.
Joel Chandler Harris and his Uncle Remus Tales. The Moonlit Road. (n.d.). Retrieved January 5, 2023, from https://www.themoonlitroad.com/uncle-remus-joel-chandler-harris/
Korkis, J. (2012). Who's Afraid of the Song of the South?: And Other Forbidden Disney Stories. Theme Park Press.
Norman, F. (2019, April 27). Black Crows and Other PC Nonsense. https://floydnormancom.squarespace.com/blog/2019/4/27/black-crows-and-other-pc-nonsense.