I went to an estate sale the other day and found an original Uncle Wiggly game for sale. Ridiculously, I bought it. It reminded me of fond memories of playing that game at my grandparents' house in Richmond, Va.
It brought back a lot of great memories from my childhood. My Big Wheel. How cool it was to use their rotary phone. Watching Song of the South over and over.
Song of the South is a groundbreaking film that used "live animation;" cutting edge in its day. It contains one of the most memorable songs ever put to a children's film, or really any film.
It is a depressing day when you find out one of your favorite films is racist.
But is it completely? Or does that even matter? Or how much is it? And does not intent matter?
But beyond all those considerations, does it not still deserve to be seen?
All of these thoughts have gone through my mind when I first started to write this post seven years ago. For seven years I have started to write this, assumed I would not get the tone I was going for correct, and abandoned the article.
I think of this now because often the first thought that comes to mind when you bring up this movie is, "Oh that's racist." End of discussion. But why is it this film? Meaning, why can it not even be discussed? Or seen? It seems Birth Of A Nation, is easier to find.
This film has not been available to be seen in the United States since the 1980's. Disney has all but disowned it here. But not abroad.
Multiple Disney films have racist scenes or characters in them. I am not arguing, "so what's the harm in one more." I am asking why is this film, imperfect as it might be, the only film Disney has never released on DVD, and the only Disney film they seem to refuse to ever show again? Why when its central character is a strong black man? A hero to the children. In how many other Disney films is a black man the hero?
What about the racist stereotypes in Dumbo, The Aristocats, even the Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp? By contrast, Song of the South has some redeemable, even honorable elements to it.
Uncle Remus is the hero of his own Disney movie. A black man. A former slave who is now treated as an equal with everyone he encounters. He is downright beloved. At a time when films were still very much tone deaf in regard to race, a black actor is the focal point of a big movie. He is not a villain or betrayed as stupid. He is the smartest person in the movie. Years later, this will be looked at as a negative. The "magic negro," concept. But in 1948 what was more surprising? This or the stereotypical black man that was portrayed as always drinking and trying to avoid work, such as Rochester on The Jack Benny Show?
Another way to look at this movie is how groundbreaking it was for black actors going forward.
Halle Berry did not accomplish as much as she wanted to take credit for by winning her Oscar. She does not have to play maids (unless she chooses to). To cry and state that what she accomplished was now going to pave the way for so many, was disregarding many of the actors that came before and paved the way for her. That played the roles many would now see as beneath her.
Hattie McDaniel is sometimes looked at, justifiably, as a groundbreaking performer who paved the way for other black actors and actresses. She famously said, "Id rather play a maid than be one."
But James Baskett is never mentioned in the "groundbreaking" discussion. That is a crime. Those who came after owe him a debt.
Both of these actors, as well as others, had to deal with things no actor has to worry with today. Not even mentioning the obvious day to day racism, Baskett was not allowed to attend the film's premiere in Atlanta. He was the star of the movie! When becoming the first African American to win an Academy Award, Hattie McDaniel was not allowed to sit anywhere near the other Oscar nominated actors. She was at a table for two at the very back of the ballroom. A ballroom that movie executives had to beg to get her into at all.
"Halle Berry is here. Whose win last year broke down barriers for unbelievably hot women."
Song of the South is a classic film no one wants to admit being a fan of. Kind of like the previously mentioned Birth of A Nation, or Triumph of the Will. But while those films' intentions were never honorable, Song of the South, one could argue, at least naively, desired to be honorable. And in some ways it succeeds. And in this we (and Disney) have our conundrum.
Disney World as well as Disney Land have a ride called Splash Mountain. It is based on the film Song Of The South. But while you hear Brer Bear and Brer Rabbit, you will not be able to purchase anything from the film in which this very popular ride is based. And Uncle Remus is conspicuously absent. In all other ways but Splash Mountain, Disney does not want you to remember the film ever existed.
But the mistakes and reasons to criticize the film are not hard to see. One huge mistake is that people are led to believe Uncle Remus is a slave. And a very happy one. But every story by author Joel Chandler Harris was set in the POST Civil War South. Maybe Walt Disney (who loved the Uncle Remus stories as a youth) assumed people would know this. But it is never made clear and people assumed instead of a depiction of a man happy to be free, it is a depiction of a man who could care less he is not.
The next and biggest reason to criticize the film is the Tar Baby story. No matter what one might argue about original intent, (and this was a parable told by slaves) there is plenty that now makes this scene uncomfortable. Was it uncomfortable to me as a kid? No. I never once thought, "hey, is this offensive!?" What can seem 100% magical as a child can then years later, through the prism of life, become something else.
That racism is taught might seem a bit trite of a sentiment. But it does not make it not true. I suppose this film embodies that sentiment. We can look at how a white child is helped by a black man, and race is not an issue with either. We can also see elements, as we get older and "learn" racism, that we would never have even noticed previously.
True of many, Walt Disney was more complex than simply "a racist;" though there is some argument that he was. Andrew Jackson was responsible for "The Trail of Tears." He also adopted an American Indian Boy and raised him as his very own son. People are more complex than a Disney Villain might be. And such it was with Walt. Walt Disney not only loved the stories as a child, he was a huge fan of James Baskett. He called him one of our finest actors. And by accounts in private conversations, not to sell movie tickets.
For his portrayal of Uncle Remus, Baskett received an Honorary Academy Award, becoming the first black male performer to be awarded an Oscar. The award was in no small part championed by Walt Disney. Argued Disney, Baskett had worked "almost wholly without direction," and had alone, devised the characterization of Remus. He was also the voice of Brer Fox, as well as Brer Rabbit in one sequence.
Receiving his Oscar from Ingrid Bergman
After Baskett's death, just two years after the release of the film, Baskett's widow would write to Walt Disney. "You have been a friend indeed and (we) certainly have been in need."
I can remember so many years ago seeing clips of Baskett singing "Zip A Dee Doo Dah" during movie or awards' shows. Or, "The Wonderful World of Disney." But now I can not remember the last time I have seen any clip from the film from any television program. With outrage from black actors that they are not getting enough Oscar recognition, there is no foreseeable way we will see clips honoring this work ever again.
But the film is not without its defenders.
Herman Hill in The Pittsburgh Courier believed that Song of the South would "prove of inestimable goodwill in the furthering of interracial relations," and considered criticisms of the film to be "unadulterated hogwash of the unfortunate racial neurosis that seems to be gripping so many of our humorless brethren these days."
It was slaves that created these stories. Think about that for a second. A man with the education to do so, (Joel Chandler Harris) wrote down these wonderful stories he heard and shared them with the world. In many ways preserving a part of a culture's history.
Joel Harris was always hanging out with black Americans as a youth. He would spend hours in the slave quarters because he was fascinated and entertained by them, and eventually wrote down the stories they shared. He believed as an illegitimate son of an immigrant, he was allowed inside their inner circle in a way others may not have been so quickly. One argument is that Joel Harris helped preserve black history when few black people had the power to do this for themselves. A white man who loved stories told by black people, helped bring them to life and preserve them. Until we allowed ourselves to find them offensive. Harris began writing the Uncle Remus stories as a serial to "preserve in permanent shape those curious mementos of a period that will no doubt be sadly misrepresented by historians of the future."
The 185 Uncle Remus stories became incredibly popular among readers of all races in both the North and the South. The Northern readers were especially fascinated by a dialect that few had heard.
This was not a mocking but a celebration in a time where that did not happen to a large degree. Mark Twain said in 1883, "In the matter of writing [the African-American dialect], he is the only master the country has produced."
President Theodore Roosevelt stated, "Presidents may come and presidents may go, but Uncle Remus stays put. Georgia has done a great many things for the Union, but she has never done more than when she gave Mr. Joel Chandler Harris to American literature."
Even today, some educators have their students read "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" over Twain's masterpiece, ""The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Because "Finn" is "racist." When of course it is the complete antithesis of that. But having these kinds of discussions seems no longer an option, if certain words or vernacular are used. Accuracy is irrelevant.
If pegging a dialect of speech, that was accurate to the time period, as racist...then is not that thought, a misguided and prejudiced one?
In a time when we must take down all statues of Confederate Soldiers, tell Native American High Schools the mascot they handpicked for themselves is racially insensitive, and attempt to completely wipe out any history worthy to discuss and learn from...how much do we lose, and what is really gained?
"Telling these tales gave the slaves hope and faith that they could survive and persevere in the face of their troubles just like Brer Rabbit." -Diane Ferlatte
Diane Ferlatte is a wonderful storyteller that often uses various Brer Rabbit stories in her performances, as well as audio recordings.
She continues in a way, the work made famous by Joel Chandler Harris; as a voice for this part of history. Because that history has some roots in sadness, does not mean a prime example of perseverance beyond it, should now be lost.
"Listen to the story that came out of the mouths of slaves."
Joel Chandler Harris retold these stories. So did Walt Disney. So did James Baskett; an incredibly talented and too often forgotten actor.
Wiping Song of the South from existence, is maybe not as moral and helpful an act as Disney would now have us believe.
"I believe that certain groups are doing more harm to our race in seeking to create dissension than can ever possibly come out of the positive images Mr. Disney shows in this film."
The Uncle Remus stories are popular internationally and have been translated into over 40 languages.
"I'm convinced that this charming film will eventually be made available to all to enjoy-and maybe even argue over. After all, some arguments are worth having."
-Floyd Norman, (Disney's first black animator)