In Defense of Walt Disney's Song of the South
By Christian Willis, September 1, 2001. Revised 9/20/01.
Ever since Song of the South's last theatrical release in 1986, people have come up with their own rumors why the movie wasn't showing up—some were extreme, some were quite close to home. Then, in 1996, Song of the South's 50th anniversary arrived and passed without a word. A few Song of the South Disney collectibles appeared and were quickly snatched up by hopeful collectors, but that was it. I thought to myself, if Disney hasn't released one of its best-known movies for its 50th anniversary, something is definitely wrong here. I have decided to attempt to set the records straight. The fact that Song of the South has been viewed in a bad light for so long combined with the unchangeable fact of when it was filmed, it will never be possible to resurrect its reputation fully. But I hope that through this article readers will be enlightened as to the true background and intention of this film, and will be able to judge for themselves.
To truly understand all that is going on within Song of the South, we must begin with a man named Joel Chandler Harris. Born in 1848, Harris grew up during the days of the antebellum South, when slavery was still very much a part of life. He lived on the Turnwold Plantation and spent a great deal of his time with the slaves. One slave in particular, Uncle Bob Capers, told him fantastic stories of anthropomorphic characters. Those stories, along with the unique dialect in which he told them, remained in Harris' mind, until 1876, when he took over a column in the Atlanta Constitution called "Uncle Si." He did not like the way the column was run and so he renamed it to "Uncle Remus" and published the tales Uncle Bob Capers had told him. The stories were an instant success, and in 1880, Harris published his first book, "Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings." The book instantly placed Harris alongside famous writers such as Mark Twain, Whitcome Riley and George Washington Cable. Harris went on to publish another ten books on the stories of "Uncle Remus," and even created the Uncle Remus Magazine, which he ran with his son Julian until his death in 1908.
It is my belief that this man was compassionate towards the slaves he grew up listening to. And, after the Civil War had passed, cared about them as free Americans as well. I do not believe that a man who spent literally his entire life immersed in the language of the African-Americans could have any malicious intent towards them. It can then be said that the tales Walt Disney would later base his movie upon were created with the innocent intent to publicize and thereby preserve the stories of the slaves through literature.
Walt Disney grew up reading those same stories that Joel Chandler Harris wrote. Like so many other children enthralled with the lively tales of Uncle Remus, Disney envisioned that someday he would use his artistic talent to immortalize them on screen. Since the 1930's, Disney had experimented with combining live-action with animation in his Alice Comedies, but it really wasn't until after 1941 with The Three Caballeros that technology looked promising for Walt's vision of Uncle Remus walking among his fanciful creations.
This would prove to be Walt Disney's first attempt at a film weighing heavily on the live-action aspect. If at all possible, Disney would have most likely left it all to animation, but Disney could not fully demonstrate to the audience the contrast between the real-life and fantasy aspects without this method. This, then, raised the concern of how the African-Americans in the film were to be portrayed. Disney and his company must have understood that to portray the African-Americans as slaves would be extremely controversial and completely inappropriate. Likewise, to omit them completely would have destroyed the live-action side altogether. Since these stories belonged to the African-American's heritage, their presence in the film was an integral part. To have omitted them would have been a slap in the face to both Joel Chandler Harris as well as the African-American community.
Let us then look at the steps Disney took to dealing with thematic elements that involved a woeful scar on America's reputation. There are a couple of key relationships in the film that demonstrate an attempt at transcending this awkward situation. First, there is Johnny's close bond with Uncle Remus. This was true to Joel Chandler Harris' stories. With this relationship you see a young white boy confiding in an old black man. Clearly Uncle Remus was a father figure to Johnny while his real father was away in Atlanta. You then see Uncle Remus holding hands with Johnny at various times throughout the film. This conveys a strong feeling of trust and friendship. Next, there is the relationship between Uncle Remus and Miss Doshy. Twice in the movie Uncle Remus and Miss Doshy engage in a brief but meaningful dialogue that shows they are on a same level of maturity and have mutual respect for each other. Lastly, note that only once at the beginning of the film when Ned removes the bags from the carriage do we see any direct act of servitude towards a white individual. Surely this factor was omitted for a reason, as it was not necessary for the film's story.
Stereotypes exist within Song of the South, without question. And that is the true key to why certain individuals object to the film. Something that is never discussed, however, is the presence of stereotypes in the film other than those in relation to the African-Americans. Look at every main character in the film, in fact, and you can find at least one stereotype—in their clothing, in their actions, in their words. You can even take it a step further and look at the scenery. The entire Southern plantation is a stereotype. The plain fact is, most innocent stereotypes are based upon the common denominator of reality. These stereotypes are the easiest to convey because they are a generalization to which many people are familiar with. Cartoon characters are stereotypes. I must stress that Disney used only innocent stereotypes—that is, stereotypes that do not make fun of characteristics of people or things. Some will always argue, however, that the stereotypes conveyed in Song of the South are not all innocent. This point will never be settled because of the heinous act of slavery African-Americans were forced to endure for so long, and although this movie is about as innocent as it can get, especially for the time period it was produced in, that is why this film teeters uncomfortably on the edge of acceptance and unacceptance.
I do not blame those who are uncomfortable with this movie or object to it entirely—they have their valid reasons, just as I have mine. When Walt Disney created this film back in 1946, I sincerely doubt he thought ahead to 2001, where his film has created a conflict: anger in some minds and fond childhood memories in others. I am one of those minds whom this movie touched at a young age and filled with wonderful tales. I can assure you that as a child I never once considered race as I watched Uncle Remus tell his tales about Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Bear.
In a world today where sex, drugs, and violence overwhelms and taints the silver screen, it angers me. But alas, that doesn't stop it from being shown. At least Song of the South made an attempt at showing harmony, something I rarely see in today's movies. And not only did it attempt at showing harmony within a family, but harmony between races as well; that was a big accomplishment for a film back in the 1940's when segregation was still very much a part of life. This is my plea, and I don't think I'm alone in this: please bring back Song of the South. I respect the views of those who object to this movie, but I don't think it's fair to prevent those who saw something a bit more positive in it from seeing it and preventing future generations from possibly benefitting in the same way. Imperfect or not, it's still a film, and a relatively harmless one at that.