"Davy, Davy Crockett, trackin' the redskins down!"
the song goes. If you want to hear the rest, buy Walt Disney's "Davy
Crockett – The Complete Televised Series," DVD. The lines,
and other choice lyrics like “them redskin varmints,” are from the
theme music of the 1950’s show. The DVD was released in 2001. For
over two decades now, Disney has been much more careful with another
of their “classics” – “Song of the South.” But next year, after
resting in the company vault since the 1980’s, this controversial
film may be available again.
Since its original, highly successful release in 1946,
“Song of the South” has had and continues to have detractors. Adam
Clayton Powell Jr. is reported to have called the film an “insult
to American minorities.” The NAACP was highly critical of it. Movie
critic Roger Ebert, while not advocating total censorship, said
in his Chicago Times-Tribune column, that it should be withheld
from general audiences because of the effect it could have on children.
Of its own volition, Disney sealed away the movie since its last
theatrical re-release in 1986 because of the racial stigma attached
to it. Jim Hill, a writer specializing in Disney news, reported
on his website in late March that the company plans on releasing
a "Song of the South" DVD in 2006 for its 60th anniversary.
But the question isn’t whether the film should be
banned. The important phenomenon is the legion of incensed and activist
fans (white and black) of the movie, fighting hard to have Disney
release “Song of the South.” They argue that it’s only a children’s
movie. They say any offensive elements the film might have can be
looked past. They say Walt Disney’s intentions were good. And most
importantly, they question whether the film is offensive at all.
Unequivocally, the answer is yes. No matter how benign
its creators’ intentions, this film is a surreal exercise in dehumanization
and dishonesty. It was excusable in 1946 because it mirrored the
mainstream white outlook of the black social position in the United
States – where they stood, who they should be and the conditions
through which they could achieve inclusion. In 2005 however, it’s
highly illuminating to observe the film’s “victimized” following
battle against the forces of “political correctness” in defense
of a movie that distorts reality by cleansing the cruelty out of
Internet movie sites and forums are filled with statements
of support for the re-release. They decry “political correctness
at its worst,” and the “BS of political correctness.” One fan purchased
his bootleg copy of the film “from a black guy,” which “lends some
irony to this whole PC business.” “Songofthesouth.net,”
one of the movie’s most comprehensive fan sites, reports that more
than 65,000 fans have signed a petition asking for the movie’s return.
So with all this love – even among a section of blacks
– what could be offensive about this film? “Song of the South” not
only condones, but goes so far as to romanticize life in the South
during Reconstruction. It avoids any mention of the post-Civil War
terror inflicted on the blacks. It depicts the blacks as passive
and accepting of their position and the whites as loving, inclusive
and relatively respectful. Like a Victorian novel, everyone has
his place in this paradise, no one questions it, and everyone is
content. It seems an oddly Old World thematic structure. No wonder
Clayton Powell is quoted as saying it was an insult “to everything
America stands for.”
The movie is set in the South a few years after the
Civil War. Young Johnny goes with his parents to his grandmother's
plantation in Georgia, apparently because there is a problem with
their marriage. Johnny is distraught and Uncle Remus, one of the
blacks still living on the plantation, tells him the stories of
Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Brer Bear and Brer Frog, both to cheer him
up and to teach him life lessons. Animation is used for the folktales.
The plantation is heaven. There's lots of singing,
campfire storytelling, fishing and playing. The "Aunt Jemimas"
make big beautiful feasts in the mansion. Undeniably there is a
natural order (the young hero wears children's suits while the black
children wear rags, blacks are not allowed to attend the outdoor
dress parties), but everyone lives in harmony.
Christian Willis, webmaster of “Songofthesouth.net,”
sees Disney’s “attempt to show harmony” between races as a “big
accomplishment for a film back…when segregation was still very much
a part of life.” But of what value is harmony at the expense of
equality, or honesty? The fictional harmony of “Song of the South”
is the same as that of slavery. It is only coexistence when the
blacks don’t question their position. And it’s fictional. It’s a
For the overwhelming majority of blacks in the Southern
states the situation was very different. Defenders of "Song
of the South" often raise the point that the movie takes place
after the end of slavery; therefore Disney was not glamorizing the
slave system (unlike “Gone With the Wind”). But the Reconstruction-era
South was really not much better.
After the end of the Civil War, Southern whites were
concerned with maintaining the social order, despite the abolition
of slavery. From 1868 onward, Southern terror groups like the Klu Klux
Klan carried out a brutal repression of both blacks and whites complicit
in the plan to give the former slaves social and political equality.
Thousands – especially prominent blacks – were whipped, beaten,
mutilated and killed. The Southern political apparatus, primarily
the Democratic Party, was no friend to blacks either, and in conjunction
with the Klan carried out a de facto disenfranchisement through
fraud and intimidation. Next for the Southern African Americans
would be Jim Crow-era segregation, a system that continued well
into the 20th Century (even after the movie was made).
This is the utopian world in which "Song of the
South" is set. As Uncle Remus says in the preamble to one of
his stories, "when everything was mighty satisfactual."
Defenders of the film can rightly say that it doesn’t set out to
portray blacks badly. The black characters are stereotypical, but
not in a mean-spirited way. Uncle Remus in particular is shown as
a universally loved, sagacious elder statesman.
Disney’s source material for the film was a 19th Century
book by Southern author, Joel Chandler Harris, called “Uncle Remus,
His Songs and Sayings.” Harris's book, extremely popular up to the
mid-20th Century, is a compilation of old slave folklore tales narrated
by Uncle Remus, a character representative of storytellers he knew
as a child. “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,” Willis says in his essay
on the topic.
From this then Willis assumes Walt Disney’s “innocent
intent to publicize and thereby preserve the stories of the slaves.”
This is only partially true. Disney also intended – as the name
of the film points out – to pay homage to the South. This film is
set in an ideal Southern world, and the only way this can be done
is at the expense of the blacks.
The African Americans in this film are beyond stereotypes
– they are devices. The argument has been made that it is a children’s
film, thus weighty character portrayals shouldn’t be expected. But
the blacks have no character. They are all one unquestioning,
non-threatening, grinning, musical and accommodating mass, whose
purpose is to give service, either physically or emotionally. Johnny’s
young black friend, “Toby,” serves as his guardian and fellow rascal.
Remus serves as Johnny’s spiritual guide and therapist. And the
black totality serves as one reassuring happy chorus broadcasting
the message, “everything is satisfactual.”
One commenter on an Internet movie forum wondered
why "Song of the South" is being censored while violent
movies like "A Clockwork Orange" are shown. But Kubrick
himself would have applauded the sinister absurdity of actor James
Baskett in the role of Uncle Remus, a broad grin carved on his face
as he strolls along with the animated fauna singing, "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah."
Baskett's grin is the worst sadism. It’s painted across
his face and his face is plastered across almost all the promotional
photographs for the movie. Seeing the Remus grin helps to explain
every surly snarl in the black ghettoes throughout the United States.
Seeing Remus’s bovine frame convulsing in an estrogen-heavy giggle
(they might as well have glued a grey beard on Aunt Jemima) while
he sits between Johnny and his friend Jenny, helps to explain the
cartoon-like hyper machismo of oily muscles and bulletproof vests
popular in Hip Hop culture.
Remus is briefly relieved of the grin for the movie's
moment of crisis – Johnny's mother forbids them from seeing each
other. Remus is so devastated he decides to banish himself to Atlanta.
Losing favor with the whites is his great tragedy, recovering their
love and acceptance is his happy ending.
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
The difference between the cruelty of Nazi Germany
and post-slavery Southern society isn’t so much in the extent of
the crime, but in the respective countries’ control over history.
Defeated, Germany doesn’t get to control how even its own people
view their history. Victorious, the United States still does. Nazi
Germany was condemned for its crimes, but America gives itself compromise.
The U.S. shows truly saint-like understanding and forgiveness when
it comes to its own sins.
These criticisms are not meant as an argument for
censoring this film. “Song of the South’s” impact should not be
overestimated. It’s really not that good a film. It’s slow and entirely
without the wit of Disney’s modern films like “The Lion King.” Much
of the demand is probably coming from the white backlash, proud
Southerners, and those driven by nostalgia. A Buena Vista Home Entertainment
(Disney’s distributor) insider interviewed by Jim Hill, said, “most
kids and adults will be nodding off 30 minutes into the thing.”
If re-released in 2006, Disney will most likely add
explanatory content about the reality of life in the Reconstruction-era
South. But the most important lesson that “Song of the South’s”
rebirth will teach is the limitation of the “one America” idea.
There will always be a separation between peoples when their historical
realities differ. America will not condemn its past for the sake
of African Americans, but even today African Americans are forced
to live with the consequences of slavery, segregation and racism.
Maybe inclusion shouldn’t have won out as the priority goal of the
Civil Rights movement. As these unrepentant backlash forces rise,
inclusion seems less and less achievable, and frankly, less attractive.
For a more flattering (but more honest?) depiction
of a black character, check out Dennis Haysbert’s brooding President
David Palmer on the television series “24.” Despite rude skeletons
like “Song of the South” in the American history closet, we have
come a very long way.
Hollis Henry is a second-generation American with
roots in Trinidad, where he has lived and worked as a journalist.
He is pursuing a Masters degree in Journalism at New York University.
Contact him at [email protected].