How to Best Handle Controversial, Racially-Charged Art? Talk It Up, or Shut It Down?

by Mark Reynolds

15 July 2013

Still from Song of the South (1946) 

The Magical Negro

Any movie featuring an elderly black man being upbraided by a white woman and doing nothing but hanging his head in shame, as Remus does when he’s forbidden to tell his little stories to the kids, operates from a default position of, at best, racial insensitivity.

Any movie where a white kid has a clearly defined biological family and his black playmate seemingly doesn’t is making racist assumptions.

Any movie where the white folks speak proper English and the black folks speak with “Negro” dialect is treading on shaky ground.

Any movie that portrays blacks as perfectly content to live on plantations and seemingly think nothing of it whitewashes history, whether willfully or unconsciously.

And the name “Uncle Remus” is too close for comfort to “Uncle Tom” – not the heroic character of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but the minstrelsy re-casting of the Uncle Tom meme as, according to Wikipedia, “a shuffling asexual individual with a receding hairline and graying hair.” That describes exactly how Remus looks in Song of the South.

Even given all that, Song of the South is just too damned bland to get me foaming at the mouth about it. The pacing is as slow as molasses, all the characters are stock figures, the plot is predictable, and the dramatic tension is nonexistent. The animated sequences are cute, but nothing special. Yes, the entire film is based on a racist premise, but its racism is a lot more subtle than that of, for example, Birth of a Nation which portrayed blacks (OK, white actors in blackface) as savage rapists of white women.

Song of the South’s relative lack of luridness is by no means a redeeming quality, but it indicates the contrasting levels of cinematic energy between the two movies. Song of the South, which is beautifully filmed, is too leisurely and pastoral for its own good. Then again, if it actually had some zip-a-dee-doo-dah to it, the racist aspects might become even more glaring.

If anything, Song of the South is historically relevant for giving birth to a meme that wouldn’t blossom for years to come. That would be the “magical Negro”, who exists for no other reason than to help an otherwise-hapless white protagonist make it to the end of the movie. Said Negro has no delineated past, no future, no life of his or her own (there’s one scene in Song of the South, and only onem where Remus doesn’t have young charges in tow, a plantation meal with McDaniel serving up vittles and a song), and no arc to the character’s life except to materialize, teach the poor white person a lesson or two, and disappear unchanged for the experience.

The late Michael Clarke Duncan played that role to the hilt in The Green Mile. Whoopi Goldberg did some of her best work on screen as a magical Negress from the afterlife in Ghost. Then there was Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance, Morgan Freeman in The Shawshack Redemption, Laurence Fishbourne in The Matrix, and more. In each instance, the black character is given some seemingly otherworldly insight that benefits the Great White Hero, but none of the credit when the hero does his heroic thing. Likewise, there’s no backstory of how the character acquires such mystical powers; s/he’s simply assumed to have them by dint of racial otherness.

All those actors – or at least the writers and directors who created the roles – owe a debt to Baskett for absolutely nailing the part he was given to play, no matter how subservient his character was to every white adult around him. But there’s something deeply insidious about the trope. Writing in Time in 2012 about Barack Obama being perceived (and parodied) as something of a real-life magical Negro, Touré noted, “While some may think it complimentary to be considered ‘magical’, it is infantilizing and offensive because it suggests black excellence is so shocking it can only come from a source that is supernatural.”

None of that would seem to be the least bit relevant to the many champions Song of the South has acquired over the years. Do note that virtually without exception, they are white. Here’s one Sperb quotes, from 1981:

“How can anyone be so racial in his judgment of a Disney Movie that is pure fantasy and entertainment? The ‘Uncle Remus’ stories are a part of black heritage as much as slavery and the Civil War. The stories were told to black children as well as white as a means to alleviate the burden of everyday life. In Song of the South the black people show a magic and a love for survival that whites envy. Uncle Remus is an all-knowing, magic man. Is there a problem with his being black?”

Sperb cites numerous Song of the South fans who, whether seeing the movie in full or any of the repurposed slices of it, carry nothing but fond memories of it, seeing it as a link back to a carefree childhood and, after a fashion, less turbulent times in America (Sperb argues that it’s not entirely accidental that some of Song of the South’s most fervent fans arose during the Ronald Reagan era, when white America was all too eager to revel in, as Sperb quotes a Los Angeles Times critic putting it, “a past that never was”). To this day, its fans will argue that Song of the South is not racist, that the movie was progressive for its time in its depiction of a cross-racial friendship, and it’s just a heartwarming story so why do you have to keep mucking things up by bringing up this stuff about context and race?

It’s certainly not news that people from different backgrounds can look at the same thing and see it two different ways, and be unable to understand how the other person could be so obtuse. That’s the place of an informed dialogue about the piece, which Sperb clearly hopes to see happen with his book (“While I personally find the film offensive,” he concludes, “its absence on many levels only fuels its conservative fandom”).

That would involve bringing people together, having them talk to each other instead of the previous online commenter, and making an attempt to see and hear another point of view. Perhaps there is a way to have a screening of Song of the South with a structured discussion afterwards, where someone might be able to explain to Song of the South’s devotees why referring to a black man (or any person of color) as “magic” might be problematic.

Song of the South’s fans ought to ask themselves why Disney, a company that has made both an art and a science of re-purposing and re-packaging its vast catalog, chooses to leave a property with a devoted audience securely buried in its fabled vault, opting instead to peel off safely de-contextualized, palatable slices at will without ever re-exposing or even acknowledging the whole. If Song of the South is as innocuous as its adherents claim it is, they need to think long and hard about why it’s out of official circulation, and what that means about Disney’s taste for the difficult questions bursting from virtually every frame of the film.

By comparison, not flinching from difficult questions characterizes the approach the Newark library took when faced with controversy over the Walker piece.

After a cooling-off period, it invited Walker to discuss the piece and her approach to art, in a public discussion moderated by author and historian Nell Painter. As reported on the blog Hyperallergenic (“Lucy McKeon, “The Controversies of Kara Walker,” 19 March 2013), she explained, “There’s a too-muchness about [art that addresses race and gender]… Dealing with race you’re already entering the terrain of too much, and when you add gender to that, because violence is implicit in each, the viewer might feel overwhelmed.”

There’s a huge difference between Walker’s art, which is meant to provoke difficult questions and feelings, and offensive products like Song of the South, which assault audiences with an unquestioning presentation of a skewed reality. But in both cases, the better response is to acknowledge the issues head-on and create dialogue around them. One library employee who was initially offended by the Walker piece said after the discussion that he had a better understanding of why the library would choose to display such challenging, button-pushing art.

Imagine the notion: having an open, informed conversation about troublesome images, instead of hiding them or pretending they don’t exist. My oh my, what a wonderful day.

Kara Walker's The moral arc of history…

Kara Walker’s The moral arc of history…

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