Depth of Field: The ‘Song of the South’ Remains the Same

[3 April 2007]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

At a recent shareholders meeting, current President and CEO of the Walt Disney Compnay, Bob Iger, dared suggest what many film fans have long considered impossible. Though no specific plans were announced, the House of Mouse big wig seemed to indicate that after a long stay in unacceptable entertainment exile, 1946’s live action fantasy feature Song of the South MAY finally see a DVD release. Amid much hemming and a great deal of hawing, Iger stated that “the question of ‘Song of the South’ comes up periodically, in fact it was raised at last year’s annual meeting. And since that time, we’ve decided to take a look at it again because we’ve had numerous requests about bringing it out.” But the product path is not cleared just yet. “Our concern was that a film that was made so many decades ago being brought out today perhaps could be either misinterpreted”, he continued, “or that it would be somewhat challenging in terms of providing the appropriate context.”

For those unfamiliar with the pro-PC stink surrounding the film (even though it’s been shown as part of the standard Disney re-release theatrical schedule in 1956, 1972, 1980 and 1986), the main complaint stems from something that stains most pre-‘60s cinema – obvious awkward racial stereotyping. At the center of the narrative is kindly literary figure Uncle Remus, a happy go lucky slave seemingly oblivious to life as part of his Master’s post-War plantation. He regales the coy white children of the house with his mischievous tales of Brer Fox, Brer Bear, and Brer Rabbit. Using their patented pen and ink skills, Uncle Walt’s animators created a kind of seamless branching between the character of Remus (played by James Baskett) and the cartoon trickster tales he spun. With the entire feel good enterprise wrapped up in an Oscar winning tune (the immortal “Zip-Pa-Dee-Do-Dah!”) Song of the South appears innocent enough.

But once you look below the surface and examine all aspects of the South story, you begin to see why the film remains missing in action. To begin with, the Remus books, written by post-Reconstruction journalist Joel Chandler Harris, have not held up over time. Using a horribly inappropriate dialect slang to realize his narration, and portraying slavery as almost idyllic, Harris’ tomes suffer from good intentions couched in basic bad judgment trappings. No one is suggesting that the actual plotlines he presented are racist – indeed, like all good fables, they offer up life lessons that little ones can relate to and appreciate. Yet it’s the exterior aspects of the Remus issue that taint and trump the inner motives. While many can forgive some of the more misguided ideas, there is an overriding feeling of frivolity that just doesn’t mix with American’s historically harmful treatment of minorities.

The film doesn’t lessen the impact. In fact, many argue that by visualizing the patronizing ‘pie in the sky’ ideal of Remus’ reality, what could be almost forgiven on the printed page becomes undeniable in Technicolor reality. Critics championed Baskett’s portrayal, claiming he brought humanity and dignity to a role that required very little of same. And since Disney was creating this during Hollywood’s shameful treatment towards people of color, many appreciated the fact that Remus wasn’t copying the “Stepin Fetchit” style of slow, lumbering black man. Still, nothing can remove the humilation associated with having a subservient African American character kowtowing to the whims of some spoiled little white children (there’s even a token slave child just to maintain some kind of corrupt cinematic balance).

It’s clear then where the problems lie. In the 60 years since Walt Disney envisioned bringing Harris’ heartwarming tales to the silver screen, race has become a solid social undercurrent in the United States. Where once it was an unspoken scourge, a misguided communal corruption that found no problem in separating individuals (and the services to same) based on the color of their skin, it’s now a given facet of any interpersonal interaction. For as many strides that have been made to equalize the scales, to take ethnicity out of the equation and keep bias against individuals based solely on their own actions/attitudes, we still live in highly prejudicial times. No matter the positives achieved during the ‘60s, or the setbacks suffered in the ‘80s, one cannot deny that race remains a weeping wound on the American dream.

So any film that wants to champion a perplexing pitch of revisionist history should definitely be discussed before returning to the cultural marketplace of ideas. But there seems to be a higher benchmark towards potential family fare than entertainment geared more toward adults. For the longest time, film fans and cinematic scholars feared that 1936’s Green Pastures would never see an official home video release. Based on a novel by Roark Bradford (another 19th Century Southerner) with the troubling title Ol’ Man Adam and His Chillun’, and adapted for stage by another white man, Mark Connelly, this all black cast retelling of the Old Testament was long considered unreleaseable. For starters, the Good Book narrative featured the broadest ethnic archetypes around, with various characters called “shiftless”, “trifling” and “wicked”. God is seen as serene and subjugated, while his angels speak in jargon-based buffoonery that saps them of all pride.

But perhaps the worst part of the production is the over reliance on so-called modern euphemisms – in essence, obvious intolerant depictions of African American traditions and customs as a short cut to three dimensional characterization. In heaven, every day is a fish fry, and watermelon is plentiful. On earth, juke joints become the primary focal points and Biblical figures like Noah and Moses are taunted by jive spewing no-accounts with loose dice, switchblades and ever present bottles of liquor by their side. For all of Remus’ mindless ‘Massa’ merriment, Green Pastures is nothing short of a primer on prejudice. So how did Warner Brothers finally manage a recent DVD release with all this potential controversy in play? Why, they let the film speak for itself, and offered up clear scholarly support for the narratives many positives and negatives via an in-depth audio commentary

Disney’s movie doesn’t have such luxuries. You see, at its core, Green Pastures is a film about faith. It wants to depict matters of the soul in ways that will emphasize and support the way religion and belief uplifts and binds us. No matter how stupefyingly stereotypical they may seem, the depictions of the Archangel Gabriel and ‘Da Lawd’ himself are housed in an undeniable coating of spiritual joy. They are so open and genuine with their conviction, so single minded and celebratory in the devotion, that one cannot help but feel their strength. Such a hefty foundation helps overcome many of the movie’s more troubling elements, and allows stateliness and solemnity to trump intolerance again and again.

Song of the South seems incapable of this kind of subtext. Instead, it flounders amid a full blown fantasy illustration of Antebellum benefice. It’s hard to imagine times being this good for any black man before or after the Civil War, but Remus is shown as carefree and oblivious to any sort of suffering. True, this could form the basis of an argument that, just like Green Pastures, Song of the South exists in a world wholly its own, made up and modified to look like reality – well, the majority’s version of the real world. But unlike Gone with the Wind, which stretches its Hollywood classicism to legitimate breaking points, or Birth of a Nation, which is significantly sunk by its mean-spirited minstrel show ideals (not to mention the pro Klu Klux Klan conceits), Song of the South wants to be forgiven for its flagrant disregard for the facts. In fact, it asks that innocence be substituted for all the clear contextual problems.

The most compelling argument for maintaining the reissue boycott however centers on the status of video – and now DVD – in the lives of children. When Disney discovered that parents would pay through the teeth to provide their wee ones with a non-stop supply of surrogate babysitter fodder, they marched out every title in their canon, purchased a few more to continue the commercialization, and even went so far as to draft new direct to market merchandise. While the bottom line was served and served well, the repercussions of such a decision were never questioned. Neither was the impact all this unattended viewing was having on pre-adolescent brains. It is clear that, without a host of supplementary support, Song of the South could cause impressionable minds to become confused about race. Since parents rarely take the lead in educating their kids, Uncle Walt’s view of slavery would have to suffice.

That being said, Song of the South will indeed be released on DVD one day – if not now, definitely within the foreseeable future. There is too much money at stake, and if the House of Mouse can find the proper presentation, and select the right explanatory bonus features, the initial uproar will be masked by the sound of ringing cash registers. There will always be people who automatically feel disrespected and/or demeaned by the kind of craven characterization offered in this film, and they have an absolute right to complain. For almost a full century, Tinsel Town treated minorities like laughing stocks in a crass Caucasian view of acceptability. But other studios have found a way to avoid the stigma while standing by their less than likeable output. Disney’s dilemma is a little deeper though. No matter how many apologetic bells and whistles they surround it with, Song of the South still carries a disturbing disrespect that’s hard to hide.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/depth-of-field-the-song-of-the-south-remains-the-same/