Thursday, April 12, 2012

Song of the South


On 28 March 2007, a film critic, Xan Brooks writes in the UK Guardian, "Is Song of the South too racist to screen?": There are two Disney films I'd like to see but can't. The first is a short cartoon - allegedly prepared for Walt's 50th birthday - which showed Snow White having vigorous sex with the seven dwarfs. The second is the 1946 feature Song of the South.

Chances are we'll never see the Snow White spoof: Disney reportedly fired the animators responsible and ordered that the print be instantly destroyed. But, prompted by a public petition, the studio is now considering lifting its ban on Song of the South. Since its 40th anniversary screening in 1986, Disney's first live-action feature has been quietly mothballed. It has never been released on video or DVD in the US.

Back in the day, Song of the South might conceivably have been read as a warm-hearted salute to America's "coloureds". Since then it's become a shameful embarrassment for the company, the equivalent of a racist old relation who can't be introduced to polite company. In depicting a (literally) fabulous Deep South strung sometime between slavery and Reconstruction, the film trades in a dubious form of myth-making - implying that African-Americans stuck below the Mason-Dixon line were a cheerful bunch who liked nothing better than going fishing, spinning tall tales and looking after white folks' kids.

When he's not waxing lyrical about "tar babies", Uncle Remus explains why he likes "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah Days .... Dat's the kinda day when you can't open yo mouf without a song jumpin' right out of it." Thus Song of the South reheats the old canard about how slaves can't really be so miserable because, my, just listen to them sing in that cottonfield.

Annoyingly this cosy misconception had already been nailed by Frederick Douglass way back in the 19th-century. "I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness," Douglass wrote. "It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy."

Song of the South was hailed as a triumph when it was released and went on to win the Oscar for best original song. And perhaps the studio should even be applauded for casting a black actor (James Baskett) in a lead role at a time when black filmgoers were still forced to sit at the back of the cinema. (Incidentally, Baskett was unable to attend the movie's premiere in Atlanta because he couldn't find a hotel that would agree to put him up.)

If Song of the South were not a kids' film I think that we'd have seen it before now. Birth of a Nation still gets regularly unveiled despite its openly, unapologetically racist stance (the KKK save the day!) and there are hundreds of other antique Hollywood movies that trade in a less virulent form of bigotry and yet continue to crop up regularly on the TV schedules. I love that bit at the end of Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House when the pliant black housemaid effectively saves Cary Grant's job by devising an advertising slogan. "Give Gussie a raise!" he says. Whoo-hoo: a whole extra 50 cents for her trouble.

I'd appreciate the chance to see Song of the South. I last watched it as a callow nine-year-old (back in the days before racism was bad) and remember liking it a lot. This is a little worrying. It suggests that the film's dodgy agenda either sailed clear over my head or has affected me so deeply that I remain unaware of it to this day - blithely going through life in the belief that there was zip wrong with segregation that a little doo-dahing couldn't cure. I need it there on DVD, if only to put my mind at rest.

Failing that, I'd settle for Snow White. (source: UK Guardian:)

RON'S REPLY:  Well Xan Brooks of the UK Guardian, through the magic of youtube your wish can come true.  After all, Disney's motto is "when you wish upon a star....your dreams come true..." or something like that.  

I'm not big on banning much of anything.  Certainly all propaganda should be critically deconstructed and viewed within the context of the history of the piece as well as the history of the release. The film premiered on November 12, 1946.  Now ask yourself exactly what were the conditions of African Americans living in the USA during 1946?  Completely disenfranchised by the government since 1877 in all of the Southern states, the black population did not have ANY government representation.

Every branch of the government declared black people as persona no gratas (non persons, non citizens of America).  The court system declared in 1896 that "Separate but Equal" was the law of the land in the Plessey vs. Ferguson ruling.  That wasn't overturned until 1954.  Race was more akin to a caste of untouchables.  Jim Crow Apartheid ruled the south and the north.

View the youtube, while it still exists, who knows when Disney will pull the plug, and let me know what you think of "Song of the South".

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