Disney Reviews by the Unshaved Mouse #8a: Song of the South

DISCLAIMER: This blog is not for profit. All images used in this blog are property of the Walt Disney Corporation unless stated otherwise. I do not claim ownership of this material. 

You can listen to an audio version of this review HERE

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Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, despite possibly being the most overnamed human being in history, was something of a trailblazer. An actor, Vaudeville artist and journalist, he was the first black actor in American history to become a millionaire. He was also the first black actor to get a screen credit. If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of him, he is far more widely known under his stage name “Stepin Fetchit”. Perry appeared in several films, almost always as the same character, “The Laziest Man in the World.”

In modern times Stepin Fetchit has come to encapsulate everything that was wrong with Hollywood’s portrayal of African-Americans during much of the twentieth century. Stepin Fetchit was lazy, subservient and stupid. Nowadays most of his films are considered unscreenable or, if they are shown, Perry’s scenes are excised.

The quote goes that there are no second acts in American lives, but in Perry’s case that wasn’t true. Despite a not insignificant amount of animosity towards him because of his film roles, he was active in the civil rights movement in the sixties and was a late convert to Islam. And that was how he became a close friend of Muhammad Ali.     

Your blog just became fifty times more awesome. You’re welcome.

This unlikely friendship is the subject of a play by Will Powers, called Fetch Clay, Make Man.

Good title.

In the play, Ali good-naturedly mocks his friend about his Hollywood past until an increasingly irate Perry finally snaps “I snuck in the back door, so you could walk in the front.” Perry’s point, and possibly Powers’, is that no matter how degrading Perry’s roles, the mere fact that he was an African-American who achieved success and high visibility in a time when vast swathes of the country would have been happy if black people had simply vanished from the face of the earth, was a stepping stone, a shaky first step on the road to Ali, Sidney Poitier, Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, hell, even Obama. Let’s take another example.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin or, Life Among the Lowlyby Harriet Beecher Stowe is so full of racial stereotypes (many of which it actually originated) that the term “Uncle Tom” is now an insult used to describe black people seen as being overly deferential to white authority.

And, oh yeah, it ended slavery. For reals. Lincoln, upon meeting Stowe is said to have greeted her with the words “So this is the little lady who started this great war” thereby crediting her book with igniting the Civil War then raging to end slavery.

I didn’t do it! It was the book! The book I tell you!

Okay, that story is probably apocryphal. You know what isn’t? Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold more copies in the nineteenth century than any other book barring the frickin’ Bible.

Ha! Better luck next time, STOWE.

The book and the multitude of stage adaptations (“Tom shows” as they were called) were a cultural juggernaut and kicked the abolitionist movement right into the mainstream of American discourse. Stowe’s black characters are sentimentalised, stereotyped and offensive from a modern perspective. But they are human, in a time when much of the nation viewed them as chattel.

This book had such an effect on the popular culture that it may have finally gotten the American mindset from “Slavery is evil, but it’s not worth fighting a war over” to “This. Ends. Now.”

I was in two minds as to whether to review this week’s movie for a long time. For starters, Song of the South is not considered one of the canon Disney classics, although I’m reasonably sure it was when I was growing up. It’s not a full length animated movie, and if I review this then people might be asking me to review other live action Disney movies and before you know it I’m watching Tim Allen comedies from the nineties.

Allen? The Toy Story movies justify letting you live. But by God, it’s a near thing.

But mostly I just didn’t want the aggro. No subject, with the possible exception of feminism, brings out the mad, the bad, the crazy and the stupid on the internet like race does. It’s like catnip for fuckheads. But I decided to do it for two reasons. Firstly, if I didn’t, you’d think I was afraid.

What’s the matter Mouse? Chicken?

Secondly, because I think I can actually bring something useful to this. You see, one of the things that makes WordPress so marriage endangeringly addictive fun is that it allows you to see from which country you’re getting views from. 

As an aside, to my single Icelandic reader: I treasure you as I would a rare Pokémon.

So I know that a majority of my readers are from the states. Now, if you are reading this in America, chances are you have not seen this movie. In fact, if you’re below a certain age it’s even likely you haven’t even heard of this movie. And that’s just the way the Disney company likes it. Trust me, they would be delighted if everyone just forgot this thing existed. I on the other hand, have seen it. I actually had it on VHS growing up (which I then lost and then had to get from an Arab stereotype in Marrakech, long story) and it was a staple on Irish television for a while. You see, Irish people, well…we don’t really do White Guilt. 

To be fair, it’s just about the ONLY type of guilt we don’t do.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean that we’re racist, or that we don’t think that slavery, and minstrelsy and racism are terrible, but we don’t feel a collective responsibility for it. The reason for that is that we may in fact be the only Western European nation that was not involved in the global slave trade.

Well, we were “involved”. But in the same way trees are “involved” in the logging industry.

And as for racist portrayals in the media?

Oh no! He’s wearing a mask! How will we know which nine foot tall Neanderthal Irishman committed this crime?

Irish people have a tendency to call themselves “The Blacks of Europe” at which point different, smarter, more sensitive Irish people smack them with a shovel and tell them to shut up and not be idiots. But one of the problems American reviewers have with this film is that American culture is just so saturated with guilt and anger over America’s racial past that reviewing this movie objectively is almost impossible. Having said that, you absolutely should check out the Nostalgia Chick’s excellent review if you want to see one by someone who’s actually gone to film school and knows what the hell they’re talking about and doesn’t use the phrase “for reals”. But yeah, this is why I decided to review this movie, because, basically, I don’t have the baggage. And I’m hoping that, as a white person who comes from a cultural history of being on the receiving end of colonialism, I may be the closest thing this movie is going to get to an impartial hearing.

Hó-tí-tó! They’re always after me unbiased cultural perspective!

Now, I am aware that this is by far the longest lead in to a review I’ve yet done but I really want to do this right. This review will also probably be pretty light on jokes so if you just read the blog for Sarcastic Map of Wartime Europe and Comrade Crow, maybe sit this one out and check in next week for Fun and Fancy Free which hopefully will be both of those things.

Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings was published in 1880 by Joel Chandler Harris, a white Georgian journalist. While a teenager, he worked on a plantation as a printer’s apprentice. The illegitimate child of Irish immigrants, Harris apparently spent much of his off time in the slave quarters, talking with the slaves amongst whom he felt less self-conscious. It was here that he was told many African folktales which he compiled into a collection of stories supposedly told by the fictional “Uncle Remus”, a composite of several different story tellers. Harris’ stories were a big hit, widely read by both blacks and whites. Harris was also acclaimed as the first person to accurately render African-American dialect in writing. Harris’ legacy is not uncontroversial. On the one hand, he is credited with preserving a rich folklore tradition that might otherwise have vanished without a trace, on the other he is accused of simply being another in a long line of whites who appropriated black culture for their own advancement. Harris’ views on slavery are not overly fashionable either. Although he considered his books companion pieces to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he apparently was under the impression that Stowe’s book was a defence of slavery, and that the message of the book was not that slavery was wrong but that when it was done right (without the abuses detailed in Harris’ book) it was a noble and beneficial institution. We can’t know what Stowe would have thought of that interpretation.

I’ll tell you. I think his mother drank when she was pregnant with him. I mean, what the FUCK Harris!?

Ha! No one will ever misconstrue the message of one of MY books.

The stories became a staple for many American children including the young Walt Disney. Yes, evidently this was a very personal project for Walt, something that he wanted to do for a long time. From the outset, Walt was adamant that Uncle Remus be played by a real actor, and that the stories be rendered in animation. It was only after The Three Caballeros that he was convinced that the technology of integrating live action and animation had advanced to the stage that could do it justice.

Were we watching the same movie, Walt?

Now, if you can believe it, Walt was apparently aware that the movie could potentially be seen as insensitive, and actually went so far as to hire Maurice Rapf as a screenwriter. Rapf was Jewish, and a well known liberal and was hired precisely to ameliorate any possible racism in the film. Walt apparently said to Rapf “I want you to do it because I know that you don’t think I should make the movie. You’re against Uncle Tomism, and you’re a radical.”

A pinko. A Commie. A dirty liberal. Stalin’s Fluffer. You’re perfect!

James Baskett originally auditioned for the role of a cartoon butterfly, but Disney liked his audition tape so much that he ended up with the role of the butterfly, Br’er Fox and the part of Uncle Remus himself. As we’ll see, this casting choice was the single greatest decision Disney made for this picture and goes a considerable way towards redeeming the movie. Disney campaigned for Baskett to receive an honorary Academy Award (he did, making him the first African-American male to win an Oscar) and considered him one of the best actors to have appeared onscreen in years. He also kept in contact with Baskett after the film and was considered a good friend by his family.

So let’s address the elephant in the room. Well, one of the elephants in the room. Reviewing this movie is just one big room, chock full of elephants. In fact, it’s not even a room. It’s just fucking elephants as far as the eye can see.

Was Disney racist?

You know, considering how deeply ingrained this idea is, and how many jokes have been made about Disney being racist and anti-semitic, I was actually surprised about just how little evidence there really is to support these accusations. Now, I’m not an investigative journalist, I’m just a guy with a search engine like the rest of you. But I haven’t really been able to turn up anything concrete. There is a famous Donald Duck cartoon called Der Führer’s Face depicting Donald living in Nazi Germany where he squawks the words “Heil Hitler!” around forty bajillion times which has led to some claiming that Disney was a Nazi sympathiser. But the short is a quite vehemently anti-Nazi piece of propaganda and those are obviously people who don’t understand the concept of satire.

People of the land. Common folk. You know. Morons.

Was he an anti-Semite? Well, the B’nai B’rith named him Man of the Year in 1955 and a great many Jews worked in the studio during his time there so we must conclude that if he was an anti-Semite he was a very lazy one. Was he racist? Well his friendship with and support for Baskett certainly doesn’t mean that he couldn’t be a racist (“some of my best friends are blacks on whose behalf I’ve campaigned for honorary Oscars”) but it’s still compelling circumstantial evidence that he wasn’t, no?

Now, let’s be honest. Disney was a straight white male living in nineteen forties America and almost certainly did hold views that would be considered prejudiced today. But I honestly believe it’s only fair to judge people by the standards of their own day, not ours. If you don’t think that, let me remind you of something. You only think racism is wrong because you were lucky enough to have someone in your life to teach you that. Most of our forbears did not have that good fortune. Now, don’t misunderstand. There are plenty of people who were racist above and beyond what was normal even in their own time.

That’s right Lovecraft, looking at you.

But was Disney one of these? I really don’t think the evidence is there that he was worse than anyone else at the time, and there is a good deal of evidence that he was in fact much better. So why do these accusations stick? Well, I think it was the backlash against the “Uncle Walt” figure that the Disney corporation has been trying to push down our throats for the last seventy-odd years. And there is so much easy comedy to be milked from the idea that this kindly, avuncular ruler of the magic kingdom was in fact a foul-mouthed racist bastard. Hell, I’m as guilty as anyone!

Racist? No. I can assure you, I despise you all equally.

Anyway the movie begins with little Johnny (played by Bobby Driscoll) arriving at his grandmother’s plantation in the South with his mother and father. And yes, this is the Post-War South, meaning that Uncle Remus and the black characters we see are not technically slaves.

Meaning everything’s Zip-a-dee-doo-dah!

To Johnny’s horror, his father tells him that he’s not going to be staying with them, and that he will have to remain with his mother and grandmother while Dad goes back to Atlanta. You see Dad can’t stay with them because he’s a newspaper editor and his newspaper is making people angry and…

It’s actually never explained why and it’s kind or irritating. I mean, this is a pretty big plot point and we never really get told why Johnny’s Dad can’t stay with them. In the different, better version of this movie in my mind, his paper is running exposes on the KKK which puts his family in danger. And at night, Johnny’s Dad battles the Klan as…The Editor!

Give that guy money!

This is fairly early on but already one of the main problems with this movie is apparent, apart from all the controversial race stuff. The acting. Now, I make it a point not to rip on child actors (‘cos Mouse got class).

You are a very nice young gentleman who did his best.

But these adults are fair game. Only Lucile Watson as Johnny’s grandmother brings any kind of charm or fire to the part, both Johnny’s parents are stiff and lifeless. Another problem is the direction. This film had two directors. One was Wilfred Jackson who directed the animated segments and the second was Harve Foster who did the live action stuff. Now Foster had a long prolific directing career, but according to IMDB this was the first thing he ever directed and it shows. The live action sequences are just flat, slack and completely lacking in tension.

Anyway, Johnny decides to run away and tries to leave the plantation under cover of an extremely unconvincing day for night shot.

Careful Johnny, you’re liable to get moon burn.

He passes the slaves not slaves singing a song and sees Uncle Remus telling a story to some of the local children. 

Okay, let’s talk about James Baskett. Growing up in Ireland, I don’t think I actually saw a black person until I was eight or nine. James Baskett’s Uncle Remus may have been the first black character I had any real exposure to. Which was why I was so mystified as a child growing up to hear that anyone could think this movie was racist because I freaking loved James Baskett. He is just incredible in this movie. He brings so much emotional depth to a character that seemed predestined for caricature. Everything he’s asked to do, the singing, the drama, the comedy, the pathos, the voice acting, he just knocks it out of the park. He brings so much charm and warmth to this role that he leaves every other character looking like they wandered in from a different, much less interesting movie.

Anyway, Remus sees Johnny watching him from a distance. Two of the servants from the house, including Aunt Tempy (played by Hattie McDaniel, meaning this movie also stars the first black woman to win an Oscar) run in to tell Remus that Johnny has run away and asking if he’s seen him.

Remus simply tells them to go back to Sally (Johnny’s mother) and tell her that “the boy’s with me.” We can only hope that Sally doesn’t get the wrong idea and think Remus has kidnapped Johnny for ransom.

Uncle Remus. You should know that I have a very particular set of skills. Skills that make me a nightmare to people like you. Um… when I say “people like you” I don’t mean…Shit.

Remus then catches up to Johnny and asks him where he’s going. Johnny says that he’s going to Atlanta and admits that he hasn’t packed any food. Uncle Remus, probably wondering how his people could have been enslaved by a race so fucking stupid, offers to come with him and suggests that they stop by his cabin to get some supplies. And no, I am not going to make any jokes on the appropriateness of young boys hanging out with older men because I get enough weird ass search terms bringing people to my blog as it is. This week’s winner was “cartoon mouse girl turds”. I am not even kidding.

Remus then tells Johnny the story of how Br’er Rabbit tried to run away from his troubles and we pop into the first animated segment. There are three of these shorts and every time they come along it’s like the movie just kicks into life. No more dull actors or staid direction. Just cartoons and James Baskett being awesome. Now, having said that, the animated segments aren’t spectacular. But they’re well executed and fun. My favorite character is probably Br’er Fox, voiced by Baskett in a rapid fire motor mouthed delivery that’s so fast you can hardly understand what he’s saying wait just a damn minute here…

Oh my God. Murphy, you whore!

Alright, this one is almost certainly just coincidence. But yeah, when you listen to them, Br’er Fox is almost the quintessential Eddie Murphy character. This segment also introduces us to “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah”, maybe the only element of this film that has survived in the collective consciousness. And with good cause, it’s an absolute delight of a song, with Remus ambling through a beautiful animated landscape, saying hello to the various blue birds, butterflies and humming birds he meets.

Hi Eddie! Hi Eddie! Hi Eddie! Bye Eddie.

The story over, Remus convinces Johnny not to run away and takes him home. Sally is distraught (and she is almost never not distraught in this film) that he tried to run away and takes him inside. There’s then a scene between Uncle Remus and Johnny’s grandmother that I think is a good example of this movie’s problems as a whole. Baskett and Watson play the scene like two old friends who’ve known each other for a long time and have a great deal of mutual respect and affection. In many ways it’s a sweet scene, and the two actors have good chemistry. Now, if you take this scene, and the movie as a whole, as existing in a vacuum, divorced of any historical context there is actually very little to object to.

It’s only when you remember Remus’ age, and the grandmother’s, and you realise that given how long Uncle Remus has lived on the plantation (he told stories to both of Johnny’s parents) he was in all likelihood the property of Lucille Watson’s character at some point. 

“By the way, really sorry about that time I sold your sister.”
“That was my wife.”
“Really? Well in that case, you’re welcome!”

And that’s the problem right there. This movie just wants to be nice and happy and showing everyone getting along. But you can’t. Not here. The moral universe that exists in this movie and that existed in the real world are just not compatible. The expel each other, and cannot coexist.

Johnny makes friends with Toby, a young black boy, and Ginny the daughter of poor white laborers. Toby shows him around the plantation and warns him about crossing the field with the bull.

Hi Johnny! I’m looking forward to goring you in the third act!

He also makes enemies of Ginny’s two brothers. They bully him, because his mother has dressed him up like little Lord Fauntleroy and really, can you blame them?

The children are right to mock you Johnny.

Ginny’s brothers, Jake and Joe, are supposed to be the real life equivalents of Br’er Bear and Br’er Fox to Johnny’s Br’er Rabbit. Unfortunately, this doesn’t really work because the actors who play them are…fine young gentlemen who do the best they can.

Ginny gives Johnny her puppy because her brothers have threatened to drown it. And, wow, that’s actually pretty dramatic. This little girl has already learned that if you love something, sometimes you have to give it up to save it. Kinda wish we could focus on Ginny a little more. Johnny’s mother won’t let him keep the dog, so he goes to Uncle Remus and basically guilt-trips him into keeping the dog for him. So Johnny gets to keep the dog, even though someone else has to house it and feed it and look after it.

Ah, the Frollo method of looking after things.

Now, I said already that the real problem with this film is not what’s actually in the movie, but what’s left out, the stuff outside the frame as it were. But that doesn’t mean that the movie doesn’t have problems on its own terms. The big one for me is just how much Uncle Remus’ existence is dominated by this little white kid. He takes care of the dog for Johnny. Okay, fine. He’s a sweet old man who wants to help the kid out and doesn’t want to see a little puppy get drowned. I may not agree with it (what? I’m a cat person.) but I can let it go. What’s troublesome is that Remus is now drawn into this power struggle between Johnny and Ginny’s brothers who want the puppy back. Remus is, I remind you, a fucking grown up! He shouldn’t have to deal with this bullshit. Anyway, Remus rescues us from this nonsense with the second and best of the cartoon shorts, The Tar Baby. This sounds like the most racist thing in the world, but is actually probably the least racist thing in this movie. The Tar Baby is a genuine African folktale translated fairly faithfully. Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear set up a dummy made of tar on the side of the road. Br’er Rabbit hops by and gives the Tar Baby a friendly “How do you do?” and is shocked when he gets no response. He tries again, but the Tar Baby still apparently snubs him.

As cartoon rabbits tend to react to displays of disrespect with all the restraint and understanding of a Mafia don, Br’er Rabbit tells the Tar Baby that if he doesn’t return his greeting at the count of three he will split his head open. He punches the Tar Baby and gets enmeshed in tar. Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear are about to kill him but Br’er Rabbit uses reverse psychology to get himself thrown into the Briar patch, where he has lived all his life and can navigate safely. This a very funny short, and probably the highpoint of the film. The funniest part for me is Br’er Fox’s constant attempts to think up the most terrible, overly complex ways to kill Br’er Rabbit over Br’er Bear increasingly frustrated refrain of “Look. Let’s just knock his head clean off.”

Back in the real, dull, dull world, Johnny pulls the same reverse psychology bullshit on the two brothers when they threaten to tell his mother that he’s kept the dog. Johnny tells them that they can tell his mother, just not to tell their mother. Of course they do, and hilarious child abuse ensues. The brothers finally get it into their inbred skulls to just do what they were going to do in the first place and tell Johnny’s mother. Sally, shocked that Johnny is (gasp!) actually using intelligence against bullies, tells Uncle Remus that she doesn’t want him telling Johnny anymore stories and that he has to give the brothers the dog back. Okay. Quick question.

Why?

The dog belongs to Ginny’s parents, right? They give it to Ginny. She gives it to Johnny. Johnny gives it to Uncle Remus. Uncle Remus is now the owner of this dog. And Uncle Remus is, I remind you, A FUCKING GROWN UP! Why the hell does Sally think she has the right to tell Uncle Remus to give his dog to these two little redneck Darwin thwarters?

Urrrrrrrrgh.

Sorry. I just cannot stand the Sally character. Next we see her discussing the situation with Grandmother. Grandmother agrees that Johnny’s display of basic cognitive ability in the face of danger is troubling, but that without Uncle Remus’ stories Johnny’s life is essentially an unendurable hell devoid of all meaning. “He needs something.” she notes.

After all, what power would Hell have if the damned could not dream of heaven?

Sally says that Johnny has his mother and his grandmother and that should be enough. And just…wow. This line actually makes me feel better, because now I know that Johnny’s mother is going to end up as a skeleton in a motel somewhere.

A boys best friend is his mother…

Grandmother suggests they throw a birthday party for Johnny and Johnny knows joy for a brief, shining moment. On the day of the party Johnny goes to collect Ginny.

Ginny is wearing a dress, which she proudly tells Johnny was “momma’s wedding dress.”

Okay. I really, really, really, really don’t want to know why your mother’s wedding dress fits an eight year old. Moving on.

The brothers follow them and push Ginny into a mud puddle, meaning that she won’t be able to wear that dress at her own wedding six months from now. Johnny gets into a fight with them which is broken up by Uncle Remus. Ginny is distraught because she can’t go to the party now, so Uncle Remus tells them the story of Br’er Rabbit’s Laughing Place. This is probably the weakest of the animated segments, existing more to showcase the song “Everybody’s Got a Laughing Place” than to really tell a story. But hey, any animated port in a live action storm, right?

Johnny’s mother is as furious as her limited emotive range will allow her to be when she finds him, because apparently the party is now over (Bullshit. This is the Old South. Parties went on so long that when they finished you had to grab a newspaper to see who was president now.) When she hears that he was listening to Uncle Remus’ stories she tells him to basically stay the hell away from her son.

Now, this is the part that really pisses me off. Having been told he can no longer be around this little white kid who has brought nothing but trouble into his life, Uncle Remus decides to leave the plantation. Seriously. He is going to leave the place he has lived his entire life just because he can no longer be of use to this white character. It’s like “Whitey don’t need me? Hm. Might as well just go off and die then. Not like I have any hopes and dreams of my own.”

It’s just awful, and yet, paradoxically, it leads into the strongest scene in the whole film. That, of course, is all due to Baskett.

Uncle Remus stands in his cabin, packing a small bag of possessions while in the distance, the plantation workers sing softly. He looks around, and takes in the four walls. 

This here’s the only home I knows. I was going to whitewash the walls, too. But not now. Time done run out.”

Baskett imbues this scene with an aching melancholy, the grief of an old man who’s lost his self-respect and his sense that he has any place in the world. It is an absolutely masterful performance, which makes the absurdity that triggers it all the more galling.

Johnny meanwhile, is out searching for his own laughing place and comes to realise that it’s Uncle Remus’ cabin. He runs in to tell him this but sees that he’s gone. He chases after him and cuts across the field to catch up to him and incredibly, unbelievably, unforseeably, wait until I tell you this now, you’ll never guess JOHNNY GETS GORED BY THE BULL!!       

We’re going to need another Johnny!

So cut to night, and all the slaves not slaves are holding vigil outside the plantation house because the life of every black person in this place revolves around Johnny. Better hope he doesn’t die, or else they’ll all just keel over like the droids in Phantom Menace when the mothership blew. Johnny’s father arrives and is told that Johnny is upstairs, delirious with fever, because that’s a symptom of massive internal injuries.

Hm. That bull’s horns must not have been sterile.

Grandmother, realising that what Johnny needs is that old Remus magic, asks Uncle Remus to come into the house and tell him a story which brings him out of his…bull coma? I don’t know.

This scene should be ridiculous but goddamn it Baskett sells it. Johnny’s father tells him that he’s not going anywhere, and that he’ll stay with him, where he belongs.

Someone else will have to take up the Editor’s mantle.

And the movie ends with Johnny’s family reunited and they all live…

…happily…

…ever…

…after…

You know what? A big part of the problem may be the title. If they had just called this…shit, I don’t know. The Adventures of Br’er Rabbit, or The Tales of Uncle Remus. Then it’s just a movie about Uncle Remus, telling his tales. That’s it. That’s what’s in the title, that’s what you get. What are you complaining about? But by calling it Song of the South, that’s what they made it about. This movie is about “The South”. This is Walt Disney’s Song of the South. This is Walt Disney saying “this is what The South was like.”

Since the end of the Civil War there has been a persistent and often successful attempt to rewrite the history of the conflict. These deniers would have you believe that the war was about liberty for the South, freedom from federal overreach and the self-determination of a proud people. It wasn’t a defence of slavery which wasn’t nearly as bad as those bleeding heart liberals would have you believe, in fact most black people were happier as slaves, not that it was about slavery of course…

It was about slavery. Period. A load of rich slaveholders who didn’t like the idea of people touching their stuff (read: actual fucking human beings) saw which way the wind was blowing and tried to get out of the union before emancipation happened.

The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.”

That right there is the people of the state this movie is set in, telling you why they are going to war. They were not shy about this. They were not ashamed.

But there have been, are and will continue to be works of fiction (in more senses than one) that will continue to peddle these myths about the Old South. Is Song of the South one of them? Was Disney trying to make us think, as Harris thought, that slavery could be a noble and beneficial institution? I don’t think so. I don’t think Disney was trying to make you think anything about slavery. Walt Disney may be the most apolitical American artist to have emerged in the last hundred years. And that’s not necessarily a criticism. William Shakespeare eschewed the politics of his own time and stuck to the big eternal themes like love, revenge, death and power. That’s why his work is so timeless. Disney, likewise, tended not to concern himself with the issues of the day. That is also why the Disney movies as a whole have such lasting appeal.

But when this approach comes up against a period of time as troubling and morally poisonous as the Old South, Disney’s usual apoliticism starts to become uncomfortably like sugar-coating.

Part of the problem is, it’s simply not very good. If this movie was a genuine classic, people would overlook the racial stuff. Quality forgives a whole lot of sins.

Trust me, if this movie had been awesome, people would care a whole lot less that Aang was played by a white kid.

Disney are fully aware of this movie’s problematic nature. But by refusing to release the film, Disney have done the exact opposite of what they intended. Instead of making people forget it ever existed, it’s now notorious. This is now “the racist Disney Movie”, which leads people to expect some kind of hate filled atrocity. Which, c’mon, it’s really not. This film is simplistic and naive, and insultingly so, but it does not come from a hateful place. In her review the Nostalgia Chick offered the opinion that instead of hiding the movie away, Disney should go all out and I wholeheartedly agree: Release the movie on DVD with commentaries from historians and black academics. Put it in its historical context. Talk about the damn thing. Talk about the good. James Baskett won an Oscar for this. That was a huge step forward for black actors. Talk about the bad. He couldn’t go to the premiere because it was in segregated Atlanta.

If you think this movie is offensive and racist there is certainly merit to your argument.

But…

If you think this movie is so offensive and so racist that it should be sealed away, never to be seen by human eyes again, I lay down this challenge.

I defy you to watch this movie on its own terms and honestly tell me that in it’s portrayal of it’s African-American characters it is more racist than this:

Or this:

Or sweet Jesus in heaven THIS:

McFarlane? I honestly would be interested to know how you can sleep at night.

It’s been almost ninety years since Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry first walked through that back door. Maybe it’s time we closed it. 

Thank you for indulging me this extra long review. Normal service resumes next week.

SCORING

Animation: 11/20

Good, high quality short level animation.

The Leads: 13/20

If we take Uncle Remus, Johnny and Br’er Rabbit as the leads, it averages out to about this.

The Villains: 09/20

Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear are a lot of fun, if not at all menacing. The two Faber brothers are…fine young gentlemen who do the best they can.

Supporting Characters: 05/20

You know what? This movie does perpetuate racial stereotypes. All the white people are emotionally dead, joyless cyphers. With the exception of Grandmother. So yeah. The former slaveowner wins. Ugh.

Music: 14/20

Some great songs here, and the hymns and work songs of the slaves not slaves are very beautiful. But the incidental music is quite bland.

FINAL SCORE: 52%

NEXT WEEK:The Unshaved Mouse reviews another movie you’ve never heard of with Fun and Fancy Free and we learn what happened to Sarcastic Map of Wartime Europe once the war ended.

 

Neil Sharpson AKA The Unshaved Mouse, is a playwright, comic book writer and blogger living in Dublin. You can follow him on Twitter. The blog updates every Thursday. Thanks for reading!

22 comments

  1. I recently purchased a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, having a lifelong interest in the Civil War. Still need to read.

    I am a walking contradiction. A white Southerner whose ancestors fought for the Confederacy, and a radical socialist who despises the very notion of race as a lie perpetuated by the ruling classes. I’m the first to call BS on the CSA apologists with their mealy mouthed nonsense on the War not being about slavery, and the first to take umbrage at the notion that the South is and always has been a haven for backwards racist inbred crackers. Needless to say, I am often faced with conflicted views, and this is no exception.

    So the big question: is this film racist?…Yeah, it really kinda is. Granted, in the gentler condescending way as opposed to the violent hatred of, say, Birth of a Nation, but it’s still pretty bad. The black characters only exist as extensions of the whites; they care more about the little white boy (the one who, in a previous generation, would eventually OWN THEM), then they do about their neighbor leaving. The man who has been with them their entire lives alongside whom they have worked and suffered and lived to see freedom together is less important than Massa Johnny. Ugh.

  2. A+ again, Mouse. You’ve tackled a subject that makes us Americans tremble in our little space boots and dealt with it in a sophisticated and respectful, yet lighthearted way. I was 20 before I saw this movie, and I have to say it made me a little uncomfortable. Watching you break it down has been instructive and engaging, and — as always — leaves me wanting more. Keep up the great work!

  3. Thank you! It’s rare to find a real informed review about this movie, instead of the typical “Disney is racist” accusations. I think people overlook that in this movie “Uncle Remus” is actually portrayed as the wisest man around, while all the whites are, frankly, too stupid to live! I think that makes up for a lot…sadly not for this movie being utterly boring! I always wanted an abridged version, with the whole melodramatic story with the child cut out, and only the scenes with Uncle Remus telling the stories left. If would made a way better (and entirely non-offensive) movie for children – it would be just too bad about some of the other Basket scenes.

  4. Love the analysis, but two quibbles:

    1. Uncle Walt’s extreme reactionary politics was never in-frame, so to speak, in any of his creations, but soaked into the basic assumptions of his stories and their characters. Like other creative people seeking to lean as far as humanly possible away from Bolshevism, Disney made his protags highly accepting of their social order. (This being American rather than European, lack of noble blood was assumed no bar to personal advancement.)

    2. Shakespare the obnoxious royalist was apolitical? Really? You might want to discuss that with a certain Irishman named G.B. Shaw, as the gentleman profoundly disagrees with you on that point.

    Best Regards,
    Rick Moen
    rick@linuxmafia.com

    1. Hmmm. You know, you kill sacred cows, you gotta make a burger. With regards 1) you gotta give me some examples before I can agree/disagree. But regards 2) I stand by my statement. Honestly I find the criticism of Bill as a Royalist a little baffling. Well…yeah, but as opposed to what? A republican? A Marxist? It seems a little redundant seeing as monarchy was the only game in town. And yes, Shakespeare did curry favour with the reigning monarch, asserting the Tudor claim to the throne with Richard III and showing James as part of a line of kings stretching out to Doomsday with Macbeth. Hell, he was dependant on royal favour and the man had to eat. I don’t begrudge him. My point was that unlike his peers, Shakespeare seemed entirely uninterested in the big political questions and court intrigue of the time (unlike Marlowe or Jonson) instead setting his stories in distant places and times and choosing big eternal human themes. Just like Disney. This makes their work timeless and universal whereas their more politically engaged contemporaries are harder for a modern audience to appreciate. Hence why they are two of the most successful artists to emerge from the Anglosphere and why you can see Hamlet performed in Harare or see Snow White in a cinema in Tokyo.

  5. Masterfully done, Mr. Mouse.

    You know, I kind of don’t mind the super long intro. I appreciate that you can always go back to the flood to really allow a look at all angles, and this review most certainly calls for it. Also, I think I learn more about what it’s like to be Irish reading your reviews than I did in Social Studies (though to be honest, I don’t recall much mention of Irish history in my classes apart from A Modest Proposal). It’s cool how most of the time you can turn up signs that most of these movies didn’t have a racist agenda and often deliberately attempted not to be offensive most of the time. Well, except Dumbo I guess. Apparently when there’s talk of Disney and racism elephants always seem to be involved judging by your “elephants as far as the eye can see” quote.

    I’m glad you pointed out how likeable Baskett was as Remus. I seem to have similar memories of him as being just endearing and full of charm when I was little (don’t now where the memories came from, being from Canada, but he’s somehow a familiar face to me) and the idea of his portrayal being racist striking me as odd. To be honest, I did always find the idea of the Magical Negro trope being negative somewhat curious, as it kind of implies that portraying a minority character as being selfless is inherently a bad thing unless the minority is exclusively selfless to others of their own race. Though you definitely made a good case for why this portrayal had problems.

    I appreciate you taking the high road and not going for the little-kid-lover jokes. That’s another thing I like about your reviews, you don’t go for the easy, cheap shots. Though the joke about the 8-year-old-sized wedding dress gave me a chuckle. Guess rednecks are kind of still acceptable targets.

    One thing I did wonder about Song of the South: If the people at Disney really want this movie to disappear from everybody’s collective memory, how come it has (or at least had) an entire section dedicated to it in Disney’s theme park? I don’t see how it’s not supposed to exist in the mind of the public if it’s so prominently referenced. And I think that’s another reason why it’s silly to try to pretend it never happened. Interestingly enough, I do remember getting a DVD of old Disney cartoons from the library that actually featured some of the cartoons that had blackface references and off-colour portrayals of Natives. That DVD had commentaries which explained that scenes like these existed in old cartoons because this was in a less sensitive time and the perceived line of what was offensive was different back then. If they could do it for those cartoons, I think doing something similar for this movie wouldn’t be beyond doing.

    Though in a way, the decision to not release it in hopes of its being forgotten is kind of understandable; there are definitely people who love to attack the likes of The Lion King for being racist, so I suspect they’d probably be ruthless if Song of the South was ever treated as anything besides an old shame. I think that’s part of the reason it’s too bad some act so dead-set on proving Disney to be out to set the social clock back, if just for subversive laughs (or just perhaps targeting it as the face of mainstream social media as people target McDonald’s as the face of the fast food industry).

    In any case, I do believe that for all your madness in tackling a review of such a controversial work, you really managed to provide a fair and thought-provoking analysis. Good work, sir.

    1. “how come it has (or at least had) an entire section dedicated to it in Disney’s theme park?”

      Disney hasn’t ALWAYS been ashamed of Song of the South. It got a theatrical re-release in 1973 (as a double feature with the Aristocats), 1980 (the 100th anniversary or Harris’ book), and again in 1986 (by which time the Splash Mountain ride was already in planning).

      They did politically correctify the ride a LITTLE bit by having Br’er Rabbit get caught by being stuck in honey instead of in tar.

      They may be soft-pedaling the movie now, but the ride is already there, and it cost about $75 million to build; they’re not just going to scrap it, especially since it’s still one of the more popular rides in the park (at least when it’s warm, and since the average daily high temperature in February in Anaheim is 70 degrees, to most tourists “when it’s warm” is “always” even if the locals are wearing jackets and complaining about the cold). I guess they could re-theme it, but that would cost (a lot of) money, which is hard to justify when nobody seems to be too put off by the current theming.

      1. I wonder what time it turned into an old shame if that’s the case. And still, it’s kind of a wonder it wasn’t re-themed, seeing as quite a few other rides have been given that treatment (like that submarine ride that got altered to be based on Finding Nemo).

  6. I’m with you most of the way until you get to:

    “.In her review the Nostalgia Chick offered the opinion that instead of hiding the movie away, Disney should go all out and I wholeheartedly agree: Release the movie on DVD with commentaries from historians and black academics. Put it….” etc. etc.

    Um, no. Other than keeping it locked away, the only truly workable solution to the tar-baby-like PR mess this movie created, oh so many years ago, is to just REMAKE the damn, and do it right this time.

    I know how to do it, too. I could write that screenplay. And I’m as pigmentally challenged as Joel Chandler Harris. Hell, I’m not even Irish.

    Whether or not anybody at Disney knows how to do it, that’s another question…

  7. Um, okay, that needed better proofreading.:

    …”only truly workable solution […] is to just REMAKE the damn [insert: thing], and do it right this time.”

    Also, delete that naughty little trollop of a period after the first quotation mark.

  8. “Somehow I don’t think Disney views the problem … as being solved by making another one.”

    I posit that’s because of a failure to frame the problem correctly. As you correctly concluded in your review, the real problem isn’t the ham-handedness of the handling of racial/political issues. That part, I believe, can be fixed more easily than most people think.

    The real problem is, the movie basically sucks swamp water.

    If I were a denizen of Disney Ink, I’d be embarrassed too.

    1. Maybe, but Disney have made plenty of bad movies. The reputation of this one (which is admittedly a tad overblown) is so toxic that any remake would risk more than any possible reward could justify (especially since the company has actually managed to shed its supervillain image in recent years and is largely viewed pretty positively for the most part). Put it this way; would any live action studio dare to remake Birth of a Nation?

  9. Birth of a Nation is irredeemable. The Uncle Remus tales are most definitely redeemable. A big part of why Song of the South is such an artistic failure is, we only get two of them. Those, the song, and maybe two or three elements of the framing story, that’s the salvageable core.

  10. I vaguely remember seeing this film when I was pretty young. Probably was about 5-6 years old. My mom showed it to us because it’s one she & her siblings saw when they were young. I remember enjoying the music and as I was reading your review, I was hearing the songs in my head. Reading about this film also stirs up sadness about the current state my country is in with regards to race. It also brings back memories from my childhood which causes lots of discomfort and cringing.

    I’m working my way through your blog. Your reviews make me want to watch all of these films I saw as a kid with mature eyes & perspective. (Pinocchio especially!) Enjoyed reading your perspective on this one.

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