Monday, March 26, 2012

IS THERE A PLACE FOR SONG OF THE SOUTH

This is one of the best articles I have ever read on films. It was written by Gary Cahall. I wanted to share it with you as the film Song Of The South is still one of the hardest to find movies made...

Of the many motion pictures never made available on home video in the U.S, none has been a source of contention and controversy, with impassioned speakers on both sides and entire websites devoted to the film, as has Song of the South. The ongoing question of whether it should be released matches debates that met the film upon its 1946 debut, when picketers, newspaper editorials, and scholars criticized its depiction of African-American life, and upon subsequent theatrical re-showings from the mid-'50s to its final go-round in 1986.

Since some of you out there may be too young to have seen the film in theaters (I was in junior high when I caught it during its 1972 run) and thus may be familiar with it solely through its cartoon segments or the song "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah," here's a brief synopsis. Shortly after the Civil War (no actual time frame is given), young Johnny (ill-fated child star Bobby Driscoll) is taken to live with his mother and grandmother on the older woman's Georgia plantation while Johnny's father returns to Atlanta. It's not really clear if Johnny's folks are actually separating, or if the father is merely finishing business regarding unspecified writings of his. A heartbroken Johnny intends to run away and follow his dad to Atlanta, but his journey is interrupted when he sees Uncle Remus (James Baskett), a jovial, elderly black man, telling stories to the plantation workers and their children. Uncle Remus finds Johnny sitting on a log and takes him back to his cabin, where he feeds him and tells him about a similar incident that happened to Brer (early African-American slang for "Brother") Rabbit, leading to the first of three animated Brer Rabbit tales in the film. Remus convinces Johnny to return home and takes him back to the mansion, but is scolded by the grandmother (Lucille Watson) for keeping the boy out so late.


Johnny eventually comes to enjoy his time on the plantation, befriending a black boy named Toby (Glenn Leedy) and a "poor white" neighbor girl named Ginny (Disney live-action regular Luana Patten) whose brothers harass both her and Johnny. The three spend every spare moment at Uncle Remus' cabin, where he spins more fables about rascally Brer Rabbit's run-ins with scheming Brer Fox and the oafish Brer Bear, tales that help the youngsters deal with Ginny's bullying siblings. Meanwhile, Johnny's mom (Ruth Warrick) is not happy with her son's behavior, and--after one such visit keeps Johnny from attending a birthday party she arranged for him--she tells Remus to stop the storytelling sessions. A dejected Remus packs up and prepares to move away, until a life-threatening incident with a bull eventually brings Johnny''s father back home and leads to a happy reunion (and a final rendition of "Zip-a-Dee-Do-Dah") for Johnny, his parents and his new friends, including Uncle Remus.

Audiences and critics generally agreed that the animated sequences (about 25 minutes in all) and the soundtrack that included, along with "Zip-a-Dee-Do-Dah," "Uncle Remus Said" and "Everybody's Got a Laughing Place" were Song of the South's best features. And while most found the story a touch on the cloying side, the performances of Driscoll, Patten and, in particular, Baskett (who was presented with a honorary Academy Award "for his able and heart-warming characterization") were praised. What was not praised--and what Disney and his studio should have been better prepared for--was the film's portrayal of everyday life on an "Old Dixie" plantation. A 1946 NAACP statement decried "the impression it gives of an idyllic master-slave relationship which is a distortion of the facts," while the National Urban League described the film as "another repetition of the perpetuation of the stereotype casting of the Negro in the servant role."


On the other side, a leading black newspaper, The Pittsburgh Courier, said that, even with its faults, the movie could in fact "prove of inestimable good in the furthering of interracial relations." The scenes of Johnny befriending Toby are, after all, fairly progressive for 1940s Hollywood; Our Gang and the East Side Kids were integrated, but everything there was played strictly for laughs (By the way, for a much more offensive family film set during the Civil War, check out the sole Our Gang feature, 1937's General Spanky, sometime). One gets the impression that the displeasure Johnny's mother feels over who he's with is as much about class (as with Ginny's family) as it is race. Moreover, Uncle Remus and another servant, Aunt Tempy (Oscar-winning Gone with the Wind alumna Hattie McDaniel), are shown to be sympathetic characters rather than the out-and-out caricatures that African-American actors were often relegated to at the time...although they're the only workers who get this treatment in Song of the South.

Had the film's makers put in some sort of explanation that its events took place after the Civil War and that Uncle Remus and his fellow workers were not slaves (a slave couldn't have decided to up and leave, as he does at one point), some of the negativity might--might--have been mitigated. Regardless of when in the 19th century Song of the South is set, however, the overall impression remains one of contented and subservient blacks whose lives revolve around working for and finding favor with their white bosses. Even the movie's title works against it; A name like "Tales of Uncle Remus" or "Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit" would have emphasized the person behind the story, but "Song of the South" to this day conjures up demeaning and racist images and a yearning for those bygone days when minorities "knew their place," as in Gone with the Wind.


Ah, you might say, but Gone with the Wind has been out on home video since the mid '80s, from VHS to DVD to Blu-ray, and there's been little complaint about its portrayal of slavery. It's true, Gone with the Wind--and much worse movies like The Birth of a Nation--are available for purchase, but Song of the South's case is unique because it is a Disney picture and is intended for children and families. Shouldn't parents, you might then say, be allowed to decide for themselves if the film is appropriate for their kids to watch? That may also be true, but what sort of statement would Song of the South's release--even with an explanatory statement tacked on before the opening or a documentary examining the film's origins and setting--make to minority audiences?

As journalist Hollis Henry put it in a 2005 article for the Black Commentator website, "Imagine a film about an old Jewish storyteller, living contentedly in Nazi Germany. He develops a deep bond with the grandson of the owner of the munitions factory in which he works. The sun shines brightly as he strolls along singing, back to his home in the prescribed ghetto, Star of David sewn onto his coat. No mention is made of his people’s ordeal. In fact, there is no ordeal. Such a depiction would be repellant not only to Jewish people, but to most people." From the point of view of a white male who saw the movie as a pre-teen decades ago, however, while there seemed to me to be an underlying message of racial tolerance, even at that age I could recognize the inequality that was being glossed over on the screen. And I'm certainly not going to pretend that I can fully appreciate how black viewers, especially young people, might feel insulted about it.


Song of the South was the fulfillment of a decade-long dream for Walt Disney to film the writings of Joel Chandler Harris, the illegitimate son of an Irish immigrant who abandoned the family shortly after Joel's birth in 1845. Apprenticed at a plantation, the outcast young Harris was fascinated by stories told in the slaves' quarters--tales linked to traditional African folklore that served as parables for coping with lives of oppression--and created the Uncle Remus character as a composite of several real people so that he could capture their experiences in book form (Uncle Remus has been compared to Ancient Greece's Aesop, who may or may not have been real, and may have also been a slave of African descent). There were good intentions all around, it seems, but looking at the movie's racially anachronistic tone with 21st-century eyes only draws attention to its many hurtful failings. For this reason, the folks at Disney seem to be resigned to leaving the film locked away in the vault.

Don't feel bad for the House of Mouse, though, if Song of the South never finds its way onto home video. The studio still makes money from the film's soundtrack, and Brer Rabbit and his animal cohorts are still seen in costume at the company's theme parks and as the (unofficial) mascots of the popular Splash Mountain ride. Oh, and James Baskett, the man who was in essence Song of the South's star and who would eventually be given an Oscar for his work on it? He couldn't attend the movie's screening or take part in any of the premiere festivities in the still-segregated city of Atlanta, because no hotel in the vicinity of the theater would give him a room. For Disney's Uncle Remus, there was no "Laughing Place" to be had in the real-life South.

SOURCE

6 comments:

  1. While I've only seen bits and pieces of this film, I am well aware of the controversies surrounding it. While I can understand where civil rights groups might take issue with the picture, overall I find the complaints biased. While most of the slave narratives we read depict slavery as brutal, you have to realize that they are a product of the time in which they were written. Most of these came before the 13th Amendment and the abolition of slavery. They were used as fuel by abolitionist groups to shine a light on a practice they found repulsive. And, slavery was repulsive. Yet, not all slave owners mistreated their slaves (no, I don't want to get into a discussion about ownership being mistreatment). If you listen to some of the recordings from the Slave Narrative Project from the Federal Writers's Project of the 1930s you hear a wide variety of recollections of what slavery was like. Some are tales of woe and brutality, while others talk somewhat fondly of their former owners. I think Song of the South is only controversial to people who look at the film through a biased lens and understanding of history. Example: I teach a class at a predominately African American college and when I mention those 1930s recordings (which are available on the web) 99.9% of my students have never heard of it. Intriguing post.

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    1. The primary reason most students (of any ethnicity) believe that every white slaveowner in the Old South was Simon Legree is because this is the image that brings in the most money in donations to the NAACP & the Urban League;

      As the incomparable Eric Hoffer points out so well, " Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket."

      Though the majority of my paternal ancestors fought for the Union, since they were in Clay County, Kentucky, a few of them owned slaves before the war. I was unaware of this until I did some research on their connection with the Clay County Wars, also known as the White-Baker Feud. The following story is recounted in detail in DAYS OF DARKNESS: The Feuds of Southeastern Kentucky, by J. E. Pearce.

      When gold was discovered in California in 1849, the head of one of the branches of the White family (their name) left Clay County for the gold fields along with their only slave. They spent a year or so with some success, and Mr. White headed back to Kentucky, leaving the gold claim to be worked by the slave. After some period of time White told him to sell the claim and bring the (rather large) proceeds back to Kentucky.

      At that point, obviously the "slave" had a choice: either disappear with the money (with virtually no chance of ever being trace or caught) and live in a non-slave territory as a free man, or go back home to his people, still legally a slave. He went back to Kentucky.

      Obviously there were some strong bonds of mutual affection and trust -- but you'll never hear anything like this from the professional race-pimps like Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, whose large incomes depend on selling a different version of history.

      Song of the South poses the same threat to the racket that the civil rights movement has become.

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  2. I saw the film sometime in the late sixties at a drive-in as a very young boy. I'm sure parts of it were also shown on the Disney TV show later on. I've seen the bootleg version of the film and frankly, it just wasn't a very good movie, certainly nothing that can't be missed. If it's a dividing point to issue it today, then I have no problem with it being held back in the vault.

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  3. I saw this film in the theater in 1986 when I was 10 years old. I was with my little cousin who was 5 years old. This film did not harm me emotionally. I don't understand the controversy. Kids today are flocking to see "The Hunger Games" filled with violent and cruel deaths of children, and that's OK? Makes no sense.

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  4. I have to disagree with this demeanor of this article toward a film that has been unjustly maligned. Neglecting to exposition to the hardships faced by black people in the Reconstruction period is not the same as 'glossing them over'. Blacks were capable of being happy, and that is what was focused on in this movie. This is Disney we are talking about after all, not the history channel.

    As for racism or stereotyping, the former of the two is simply not to be found. By this I mean there is no hate or mendacity directed at a single black person in the film. They all are portrayed in a positive light. As for stereotyping, well yes they did dress a certain way, but that seems to be a fairly accurate represenation of how sharecroppers would dress. The dialect? Well again, I don't think it's so historically inaccurate. In fact the way it is represented in the movie is quite charming.

    When I watched Song of the South for the first time last night I came away thinking how Uncle Remus was one of the most likeable characters in film history. He is a wonderful character who is both kind and wise.

    I'm sorry, I just don't get it, and I have to say the holocaust comparison is a bit off the deep end. This film should be released and parents should have the option of showing it to their children.

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  5. It has been decades since I have seen this film, although I have seen a few clips from it, over the years. I don't see why it is considered so controversial when there are others with very insulting content that are available on DVD and are even shown on channels like TCM. They show D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" (1915) every year or two. If anything should be censored, it is that. I have been a silent film fan all my life (58 years). The film is historically significant, but I can't get through it. I have tried, several times, but I always end up in tears and turn it off. How anyone can view it and say that it is not racist is beyond me! That film, and its glorification of the KKK, led to such horrors as young black men, like my 18 YO son, being beaten, drug from cars, and then hanged, while young people stand around and cheer! I can't even type about it without tears!

    I became seriously ill when my two youngest children were 3 and 4. I had to rest most of the time, and had my children sit with me and read or watch videos. I had the Cabin Fever set of the Our Gang comedies, which we watched, over and over. There were a few that I did not show them, however, because they portrayed black children in an insulting manner. One example is "Lazy Days" (1929), which portrays a black boy, Allen "Farina" Hoskins, as so lazy that he won't even pick up a container of milk to drink it, but has his sister put a straw in his mouth. There are a handful of others that I decided not to show my children, and another handful that contain things that I felt the need to say something about but, overall, they were a positive thing. Most were actually quite progressive for the 1920s and 1930s when they were made. They portrayed black and white children playing together, going to school together, even sleeping in the same bed together. It would be a shame if someone had decided to ban the series because of a few objectionable scenes.

    I hope one day parents will have the option of previewing Song of the South and choosing whether to allow their children to see it.

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