"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 their history.
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 fairy tale.
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
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
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
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.
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].