I was recently trawling through my DVD collection, in particular the Disney product, looking for something to watch on a lazy, rainy Sunday afternoon, when it suddenly struck me that given my position as a film critic and appreciator, I’ve yet to give you my opinion on one of Disney’s more controversial problems: whether or not to release the 1946 film Song Of The South.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of why I believe the film should be released, let’s do a quick background check on the problems associated with it in the first place.
Song of The South is a film based around the tales of Uncle Remus, a jolly black man relating the fables of Br’er Rabbit and his friends (Br’er Bear and Br’er Fox, the latter of which wasn’t actually a friend of Br’er Rabbit but belonged in the same set of stories) to some children. Filmed by Disney and released in 1946, the film contained a mixture of live-action and animated content, the Uncle Remus segments in live-action, and the related fables in hand-drawn animation. James Baskett was cast as Uncle Remus, and the child actors of the film included Bobby Driscoll, Luana Patton and Glenn Leedy. The film is set in America’s Deep South, a known breeding ground for racism and slavery, particularly prior to the US Civil War. The remnants of slavery and racism are still evident, although since the time of Martin Luther King and the various Congressional Bills passed during the 60’s and 70’s this issue has largely (but not entirely) slipped into the backwater of history.
Due to its setting and the era in which the film was made, Song Of The South contains a disporpotionate number of racial cliches and caricatures, depicting Negro Americans in a less than flattering light. While today this may seem provocative, and entirely politically incorrect, at the time it was par for the course. African-American people during this time were still unable to attend the same schools as white people, unable to vote and had limited power in any form of government or council. Nowhere was this more prevalent than in the Deep South. Segregationalism and racism, both passive and aggressive, were the order of the day, even though by then, many black soldiers in the military had fought and died in the trenches of World War Two, alongside their white-skinned bretheren.
Disney, as the paragon of “family” entertainment, has undergone a significant change in it’s influence and power in the years since Song Of The South was released. So too have social and ethical standards, resulting in less tolerance for overt racist and bigoted views, many of which now exist only in a minority. As a company, they have a standard to maintain, a standard which means anything seen to be going against the social standards of the time gets not even a sniff of a look-in. Song Of The South, perhaps Disney’s most overtly racist production, has borne the brunt of this change. No longer is it okay for people to portray people of Negro descent as less-than-human, at least in anything other than a contextually accurate basis. Song Of The South wasn’t attempting to display how African-American’s were subject to emotional and personal degradation, nor was it a predetermined attempt to rectify this situation: it was the fruit of a time period reflective of the prevailing social mores. It wasn’t racist by design, but by relevance.
The Disney Corporation has steadfastly refused to allow a home video release of the film in the US, even though it’s been re-released in cinemas numerous times over the years (most recently in 1986), due mainly to a perceived potential backlash from African-Americans against the prejudiced and overtly racist Uncle Remus framing story. In one sense, this is probably the right thing to do, since the majority of the films intended audience are children, an impressionable bunch who may assume the un-PC elements to be normal and so induce a mild tolerance of racism. Whether this would happen is a hotly debated point: which brings up the next. [Editors Note: Song Of The South has been available in some European countries for years now, however no version exists of a legitimate US edition. I should also point out that this film is unavailable in Australia as well.]
Should Song Of The South be made available in a contextually presented version? This question needs to be given the framing context it deserves: Disney has released some of its other material to the public in uncensored (and, in the case of Fantasia, censored) versions, albeit with contextual narrative explanation to accompany it. Leonard Maltin, the famed movie critic and Disney historian, presented a series of shorts (on the Disney Treasures DVD releases) with a brief contextual explanation, allowing people to understand that the films were a product of their time, and with the passage of the intervening years no longer reflected cultural norms. It was a way of presenting historical works of art in their original format without upsetting various groups. The Fantasia issue, which has been explored to some degree here, is a problem derived from the same issue: yet rather than present the film in its contextual whole, Disney modified the film from the original version to accommodate the desire not to offend anyone. The removal of a black centaur character from one shot of the film, in which said character was seen polishing the hooves of a white centaur in what could be construed as an overly racist genercism, continues to cause rampant discussion around various internet film forums, particularly among those who think the film has been “tarnished” by such tampering.
It’s not so much a question of being seen to be racist, it’s more a case of understanding how historical context and era-specific themes have changed over time. Audiences these days are more tolerant (I like to think) of concepts and themes that, perhaps less so back in the 40’s, are able to be assessed as simply a product of their time than of any obvious malice in the present. How Disney think anyone would find it contemptible that they present a film made over a half-century ago in a seriously contextualised format, and allow discussion of its perceived racist qualities? Much like Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph Of The Will, a doco film about the rise and glory of Nazi Germany, remains a pivotal piece of film-making to this day: and nobody bats an eyelid that it’s actually glamorising Nazism. So how can you justify a film that promotes the most appalling political movement in human history, and look at it in its context as a piece of propaganda, and yet go all yellow-bellied when racism comes up in a “family film”? Is Song Of the South not also a product of its time? Regardless of content, it should be presented as such.
It must be said that Disney have every right to treat their assets in any way they see fit. Just because you or I may disagree with this self-censorship doesn’t give us the right to berate Disney for their choices; they own the film, and of course they can choose to acquiesce to the popular consensus that racism shouldn’t be used as a form of entertainment. I understand their nervousness about releasing such a potentially divisive film as Song Of The South into a world already beset by conflict and persecution over race. However, a carefully promoted release, perhaps involving a discussion somehow on the racial issues Song Of The South presents us with, as well as a context explanation from the studio, would surely placate the majority of those who might find this objectionable. Perhaps release it as an adult-content presentation, unsuitable for children?
There’s nothing wrong with being able to look back at your own history and say “Okay, so that was wrong” and admit to it, but to bury your head in the sand and deny everything (which is what it seems like Disney have done), and hide behind the curtain of conservative timidity about a sensitive subject (a subject that, mind you, people are now more open about that ever before) reeks of a corporation more scared of its heritage than proud of it.