The reasons why Song of the South is not streaming on your Disney + — Mistakes Were Made
Song of the South is a live action/animated movie Disney released in 1946. The film was a box office success grossing $3.3 million at the box office. Disney made a profit of $226,000 ($2.83 million in current day). Song of the South won two Oscars for the movie, one for best original Song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” (yes that song we all know and love came from this movie), the other was an Academy honorary award for James Baskett for his portrayal of Uncle Remus. With all the accolades, Disney never released Song of the South on any home video format in the United States. You won’t be able to find Song of the South on Disney+ either. Why? Many people believe Song of the South is Racist. I will examine the many reasons people think this way about the movie.
The film takes place on a Plantation in Georgia. The film is supposed to take place during the Reconstruction Era. This is the era in U.S. history right after slavery ended and before the Segregation era began. The issue is the movie never specifically states this. Now Disney states the movie makes references to the Reconstruction Era. The clothing the characters wear is a newer late- Victorian style; Uncle Remus comes and goes from the plantation at will and the black field hands are share croppers. I will give Disney the Remus fact but unless you’re a clothing historian, given the setting everyone thinks the film is set during the Slavery era! Given the fact it’s a Disney movie, it just looks like Disney Disney-fied Slavery. All the African Americans are happy and singing and just working away, this is not how Slavery was in real life. Just watching the film it’s hard to decipher the difference between a sharecropper and a slave, they look the same.
If you were to watch Song of the South without my disclaimer about the time period, you would assume it took place during the Slavery era. Disney didn’t do a good job distinguishing between the Slavery and Reconstruction era in the movie.
Given Disney’s insistence the film takes place after Slavery, it’s hard not to notice that all the adult African American characters are playing a servant role in the movie. All African American women are playing a maid\house keeper role. All the African American men are working in the field and outside the home. Uncle Remus is doing whatever Uncle Remus does. Once again besides Remus ability to just sit around and tell stories, it’s hard not to view all the other African American characters as Slaves.
If you examine the dialogue between Uncle Remus and the Grandmother or Remus and Sally, it comes off more as a Master\servant conversation than either friend\friend or even employer\employee. Sally gives orders to Remus about Johnny, and it appears Remus has no choice but to accept the order. Remus defies the first order and Sally talks to him more sternly the next time. I assume Uncle Remus was a sharecropper, but the discussion wasn’t a do this or ill fire you tone more like a do this or else. On a side note, doesn’t Remus work for the grandmother? Why was Sally giving him any orders and why did Remus feel the need to follow it if he was a “free” man? They blur the lines of what the African American characters were or were not in the film.
Clothing and dialogue
If you examine the clothing in the film. Johnny’s family all wore nice clothing. Johnny, Grandmother, Sally and Johnny’s Dad all dressed nice, they had that plantation money. Ginny and her brothers and mother’s clothing was “working class” but Ginny had the ability to dress up when needed to as you see when she gets dressed for Johnny’s party. Uncle Remus and Toby, well there is no other way to say it they had on slave clothes. All their clothes seemed very shabby and well worn down and even torn or ripped. The African American woman clothes were maid outfits. Again, very hard to decipher these people were free. I mean why couldn’t Remus dress up for Johnny’s party too?
All the African American characters including the animated characters talked in Broken English or slang and used stereotypical distinct African American vernacular compared to the White characters. Even Ginny’s family who were working class spoke better than the African American characters. Also, all the African Americans song in unison a few times in the movie, including outside the big house as Johnny lay ill. This movie is a musical, but depictions of slaves singing in movies are rampant throughout cinema history.
Before Remus breaks into Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah, he reminisces about the past and “how things were better all around,” back then. Remus was reminiscing about the not so distant days of Slavery. According to Remus, it was better to be a slave than a free man.
In U.S. films, the magic negro is a supporting character who comes to the aid of white protagonists. Magic negro characters often possess special insight or mystical powers. The magic negro usually holds a lower class job. The character is usually patient and wise, often dispensing words of wisdom. The magic negro will do almost anything including sacrificing him or herself to save the white protagonist. Think of Will Smith’s character in The Legend of Baggar Vance or Michael Clarke Duncan’s character in Green Mile.
Uncle Remus was an early version of the magic negro character. He provided Johnny with advice with his stories and when Johnny got injured, Remus story telling brought Johnny back to consciousness. The problem with the magic negro character is that he or she is always playing a subservient role to the white protagonist even with their mystical powers or wisdom. Though Johnny is a little boy in Song of The South, Remus is the one who stashes the dog for him and saves Johnny from getting struck with a branch by one of Ginny’s brothers. Remus is a great guy but wouldn’t he be better off using that wisdom to get off the plantation and travel north for a better life? Oh, but then he would miss sitting around and telling the grand tales of Br’er Rabbit to children.
The Mammy character is usually portrayed as an older black woman who is overweight and dark-skinned. She is an idealized figure for a caregiver that’s amiable, loyal, maternal, non-threatening and obedient. Hattie McDaniel’s character of Aunt Tempy perfectly fit the Mammy stereotype. Ironically McDaniel won an academy award for playing “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind. McDaniel had a lesser role in Song of the South, but it’s hard not to miss her Mammy stereotype.
In Uncle Remus’s second animated story, it’s the tale of the tar baby. Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear composes a dummy out of tar, buttons, Bears hat and fur. The tar baby is a trap for Br’er Rabbit to fall into. Br’er rabbit comes along sees the Tar baby and mistakes it for a person, he spokes to it but gets no response. Rabbit becomes enraged by the tar baby’s lack of manners and punches and kicks it therefore getting his hands and feet stuck (remember its tar) and eventually getting stuck in the tar. The imagery of the tar baby is just visually upsetting. I understand it’s supposed to be made of actual tar but it’s still tough to swallow.
The Oxford dictionary defines Tar baby as, “a difficult problem which is only aggravated by attempts to solve it.” but there is a second definition for the U.S., “a derogatory term for a black.” Though the tar baby story descends from African folklore, most people see the term as a derogatory term today. When Disney re-aired Song of The South on U.S. television, the tar baby scene is completely cut out. A few U.S. politicians, including John Kerry, John McCain and Mitt Romney, have gotten into trouble for using the term.
Most people don’t know that Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear were the inspiration and main characters for the Splash Mountain ride at Disneyland. The tar baby scene is not on the ride as Br’er Rabbit gets stuck in a bee hive instead.
Modern day Disney is all about family friendly entertainment. It makes sense it does not want to give attention to one of its older movies that may or may not depict slavery and a bunch of African American stereotypes.
A lot of people including Whoopi Goldberg are asking for Disney to re-release Song of the South in the U.S., but I don’t see that happening soon. Song of the South will be public domain in 2039, meaning anyone can air or show it for free.
I can imagine that even with Disney’s stance today on the movie in the U.S., they will release it at some point to make some profit before it becomes public domain. Lets not fool ourselves you can easily buy the European DVD on the internet, Disney’s moral stance only goes so far.
I saw a lot of comments on the internet asking why is the movie essentially “banned in the U.S.” The people asking didn’t see any issues with the film. I hope I could shine a light on all the stereotypes present in Song of the South and why Disney has the stance it has on it.
Originally published at https://mwmblog.com on February 24, 2020.