Sunday, February 8, 2015

Song of the South

I was probably six or seven the first time I went to Disneyland.

Many of the rides that were my favorite then were kiddie-oriented. I loved the Tiki Room, for example. (Oddly, years later in 2012 with my recent-ex and a college buddy, we went there on the 40th anniversary of the Tiki Room - one of the most low-key events ever put on in the park-grounds, I should expect.) And yes, as a kid I liked It's a Small World, and closed my eyes through the entirety of the Haunted Mansion. It was a grand time.

We went back a few years in a row, and then stopped. Perhaps my father's fortunes changed. I don't know. Maybe we just got too old, although I've subsequently enjoyed myself on the two occasions in my twenties when I've gone returned to the park.

But the point of all this is that, one of the rides I continually enjoyed over the years, was Splash Mountain. Even as a child I was somewhat analytic in nature, and I was intrigued, in a passing way, by the animatronic tale of the ride. I didn't know these characters of Br'er Bear, Br'er Fox, and Br'er Rabbit from the Disney movies I'd seen - and I'd seen quite a few. It was the beginnings of a mystery.

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I grew up in a Disney family, and throughout my childhood I'd watched a lot of classic Disney movies. I loved Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Robin Hood, and many others. My dad, on the other hand, took advantage of the VHS phenomenon and bought Disney films from his youth. As such, I also grew up with the lesser-known Disney Classics such as Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, and The Three Caballeros.

One movie my dad kept waiting for was Song of the South. It was being screened in move theaters as late as the year I was born, 1986. But as the VHS releases came out during the 90s, it never got released. Nor was it put out on DVD when that format began to dominate.

The story of Song of the South was one of those little mysteries that rattled in the back of my mind. I knew, by then, that it was the source of Splash Mountain's story. It was forbidden, and so, naturally, I wanted to see it.

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In 2013, over the summer, a then-friend and I discussed seriously creating a 'History of the Novel' course, as a high school elective. It could be taken as a history credit, my background as a social studies teacher providing legitimacy there, or an English credit, as my then-friend was in that field.

We therefore wanted to provide selections of novels that both showed the development of the format, as well as highlighting novels that played a role in history. I wrote up at the time our potential syllabus: Frankenstein, The Tale of Genji, Tarzan of the Apes, and the rest. One of those novels, of indubitable historic import, was Uncle Tom's Cabin. I'd never read the book, though, and so picked it up and began reading this so-called classic.

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A month or two later, my then-girlfriend and I went upstate to Hartford to see the Twain house. My mother had told me stories as a child of what a wonderful mansion it was, and as a mansion-viiting type (previous excursions including Newport and Hearst Castle), I was used to, and fond of, these sorts of outings.

Once we arrived, after eating at a nearby Irish pub, we got tickets for a tour that was a double special, for it turned out that Harriet Beecher Stowe's house was literally the house next door to Twain's. I was, at that time, still reading Uncle Tom's Cabin, and I was interested in her life, even if the book was a drag. The 'History of the Novel' class, by now, had fallen through. It was already mid-September.

Most interestingly, actually, was the fact that she helped come up with modern kitchen design. Things you learn on a house tour.

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As October progressed that year, everything fell apart.

First, in late September, shortly after our house tour, my then-girlfriend broke up with me. She had been something of a rebound, having started dating a month after a long-term relationship ended. In all we dated about four months. I liked her, but was wary when, the day before the phone call, she didn't go with me to the regional fair called the Big E.

My then-friend, who had gone with me and others to the Big E, was fired shortly thereafter for the most just reasons you could imagine. We've not spoken since, I defriended him the same day on Facebook, and was wary of anyone who kept contact with him. We'd been pals, but it was clear, as allegations mounted, and truth was out, I hadn't known him at all.

Two other people left the school that month, both poorly. The night we heard about my then-friend, people came to my apartment, brought beer, and commiserated. Life went downhill fast. It took a couple of months to recover.

By then I'd finished Uncle Tom's Cabin, and moved on to, as I recall, Fear and Loathing.

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Some facts, first.

Between 1880 and 1907, Joel Chandler Harris, another friend of Twain's, wrote the Uncle Remus stories. Harris, like Stowe, was white. And like Stowe he was trying to paint a sympathetic portrait of African-Americans. Also like Stowe (and Twain), he tried to write dialect. That looked something like this:

The Disney film Song of the South, based on Harris' stories, was released in 1946, and although Harris stopped writing these Reconstruction-era fables (and subsequently passed away in 1909), new collections were being put forth as late as 1948 - well into the WWII-era.

Song of the South's most famous cultural achievement, of course, is the Academy-Award winning song, originally sung by James Baskett as Uncle Remus: 'Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah'. That song, for example, was released on VHS on Disney Sing-A-Long tapes. It's been covered by everyone from Louis Armstrong to Diana Ross and the Supremes and culturally referenced many times.

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The other night, out of idle curiosity, I decided to solve this childhood mystery, and went searching for Song of the South online. I knew it had been released in other countries, and figured someone must've uploaded it.

Sure enough, I found it. I watched it, and I thought about it.

First things first, though, I should give a quick overview of the plot, since few Americans have ever seen the film, and the Splash Mountain version is very different from the movie. It goes something like this:

A boy (obnoxiously cherubic Bobby Driscoll), his mother, his father, and Hattie McDaniel take a coach to Grandma's house. On the way they stop in the forest and encounter a big, mean wolf...

Just kidding.

Anyway, they get there and dad leaves. Something is going on between him and the mom, with lots of tense looks, but this is never actually explained. The boy is distraught, and tries to run away that night, encountering instead Uncle Remus, telling stories. By this point in the film you sort of want the boy to run away, and maybe die of exposure, but sadly he goes back to Remus' sharecropper cabin, and hears first the song 'Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah', and then the story of Br'er Rabbit escaping one of Br'er fox's traps. Needless to say, this is the first animated section.

Moral is: you can't run away from trouble. I guess. 

So Bobby gets a puppy from a nice girl down the road, and then his total bitch of a mother makes him give it back EVEN THOUGH THE LITTLE GIRL GAVE IT TO HIM. Remus agrees to keep it in secret, and tells the story of the tar baby, with the apparent moral of not messing with things you have no business with... I don't know. We also get the song 'How Do You Do?' which Splash-Mountaineers will immediately recognize.

The mother finds out Remus hid it, and makes him give it back for reals this time. Seriously, by the end of this thing you just want to punch the mother.I don't even like the boy, but give him a break! Also they explicitly say, multiple times, that if they give the dog back to the original family they're going to drown it. Fuck racism, puppy-murderin' is a pretty good reason for Disney to bury this film. 

And so now the boy has lost his father and his dog, who loved him, and who, since we don't see him again, was presumably drowned. At least the boy has Uncle Remus to hang out with! Like, his only friend! But will his Cruella De Vil of a mother allow that? Of course not!

For some reason or another (there was a party, the family down the lane, there was a fight, yadda yadda) Remus has to console this poor kid yet again, and should seriously file papers for legal guardianship, telling the boy and the nice girl from down the road about the time Br'er Rabbit went to his laughing place, with the accompanying 'Laughing Place' song.

As reward for helping the children through their misfortunes, the mother forbids the kindly Uncle Remus from ever speaking to the boy again. So Uncle Remus runs away.

As we pile on the layers of loss and trauma on Bobby Discoll's golden-locked head it was only a matter of time until the child would eventually snap. He runs after Remus, gets gored by a bull, and dies.


On his death-bed, he calls for Remus, who is found, and who, through the power of his story-telling, IS ABLE TO REVIVE THE BOY FROM THE BRINK OF DEATH ITSELF. Uncle Remus is, literally, supernatural. At this point the boy's dad has come back from wherever the fuck he was, and when the boy revives Remus goes way again to leave the family to reconcile. He is a black man, after all. Wouldn't want the man who saved your son's life to muck up the whole thing by being all black and present, would we?

Then they all become delusional and start seeing the animated world around them before, literally, skipping into the sunset.

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So. Thoughts.

1) Holy shit is the boy's mother the Worst Parent Ever, or what? She does nothing to console her son when his father leaves, makes him give back his rightfully-owned puppy to be drowned (the puppy that helped him get through these hard times) and then says he can't be with his only friend. Total. Bitch.

2) And far more importantly, is it racist?

In a nutshell - yes.

But it's more complicated than that. First, unlike Dumbo's crows, say, the Br'er trio is actually voiced by black voice-actors. So that's progress. Yet the animated villains of the fox and bear are pretty awful stereotypes. The fox, not surprisingly given the role of foxes in fairy-tale and fable, is the cunning one. He is the stereotypical fast-talking overly-cocky character. The bear is a dummy. He's not Stepin Fetchit-levels of racist, but it's pretty bad.

But these are villains. I could diatribe for a long time about how Disney portrays its villains in stereotypical formats. What of the main story, though, the live action? Is it racist?

One common misconception held by those who've not seen the movie is that Remus is a slave. This is not the case. The story clearly takes place during Reconstruction, and there are multiple scenes of the plantation's African-American inhabitants living as sharecroppers. 

The closest analog for Uncle Remus, not surprisingly, is with Uncle Tom's Cabin. I have, as mentioned, read this work, and it's difficult to describe for those who've not read it. We look on this book, these days, as racist. But at the time the intent was to paint a sympathetic portrait of African-Americans. Harris' Uncle Remus is the same, and in the Disney adaptation, this is the tenor of the live action sequences. After all, given the story, Remus is consistently doing the right thing, and consistently is the hero. I honestly think Disney wanted to tell a positive story about African Americans.

That said, it is still very problematic by today's more enlightened standards. The clincher in this, really, is when Remus decides to run away. I mean, he's a grown man who's just been told off by this awful woman. A child would run away - why would he? He still has family, and plenty of other children to tell his tales to. It just doesn't quite make sense, and feels off in the film.

I  get that Disney was trying to do the right thing, but these days, due to the plot, the animated villains, and the still-unfortunate use of dialect, it's rightfully seen as racist.

3) Should it be made public in America?


It's not one of Disney's proudest moments, but then again neither are the black crows in Dumbo, or the Native Americans in Peter Pan, the Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp, or half a dozen other such things. Nowadays Disney has released disclaimers about these portrayals. Unlike, say, the black centaur in the original Fantasia, the point of the humor in Song of the South is not to laugh at black Americans. The elements that we see now as clearly troubling in Song of the South were never at the expense of Uncle Remus.

So frankly, since the intention wasn't for a cheap racist joke, and since many Disney movies that do have cheap racist jokes in them are seemingly fine to be released, let's just go ahead and put it out there. Slap a disclaimer on it, and release the thing already. It might be good to have the cultural discussion. 

If nothing else, Splash Mountain will now make a lot more sense.

1 comment:

Karen said...

I think Uncle Remus is the only person who can bring the boy back from the brink because he's the only person the boy truly loves. Therefore, he's not supernatural. That said, and given the "skipping off into the animation" part, maybe the boy's dreaming? Or actually dead? B/c he goes off into to his perfect world/heaven, where his parents are happily together, and Mr. Bluebird is once again on his shoulder....