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

As cultural kerfluffles go, this one had all the trappings. A high-profile location. A provocative work by a prominent artist. A controversial action, with no advance warning. Pitched feelings on both sides.

And, oh yeah, race.

The scene was the Newark Public Library, not exactly a hothouse for bleeding-edge art. But in December 2012, the library exhibited “The moral arc of history ideally bends towards justice but just as soon as not curves back around toward barbarism, sadism, and unrestrained chaos,” a sprawling, disturbing drawing by Kara Walker, dramatizing the violence of racism in America down through the years. Nothing shocking there; Walker’s drawings and cameos typically dance all over that fault line. And many of her works feature images that are purposefully unsettling.

The piece in the library, on loan from a collector, was one of those works. Amidst a burning cross, an uneasy nighttime sky and bodies in fear and anger, there’s a depiction of a naked black woman giving oral service to a naked white man. His hand is holding her head in place, and there is nothing to suggest that this act is happening by mutual consent.

That all was apparently too much for some library staff members, who complained about the graphic depiction so much – after it had been on display all of one day — that the library temporarily covered the entire piece. That act, in turn, raised the ire of Walker and the collector.

How the library chose to resolve this dilemma is a model for clear-headed thinking and common sense. It was an approach that, needless to say, hasn’t always been chosen when grappling with disturbing, racially charged art. Covering it up – or just not giving it even the time of day – is the route taken more often than not. But when a work of art disturbs its audience as deeply as Walker’s piece did, that may actually be a good thing. It presents an opportunity to get at why it’s so disturbing, and to get those feelings out in the open for everyone to understand and explore.

American art and culture is replete with images that make us uncomfortable. And no subject matter makes us Americans uncomfortable quite like race. And there’s no shortage of uncomfortable material in that subject matter. You’ve got images that go out of their way to denigrate black people – D.W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation (1915) comes to mind here. You’ve got the work of artists like Walker, who take America’s racist past and hold a present-day mirror to it. And you’ve got seemingly innocuous works that black people find horribly offensive, while white folks scratch their heads about what the problem is.

Occupying a fairly significant place within the latter category is the 1946 Walt Disney film Song of the South. This is a movie that was roundly vilified at the time of its release – its first release, it should be noted. In fact, Song of the South has had more than one bite at the apple these past 67 years, in various forms and guises. At every turn, black people have found no reason whatsoever to embrace it, save for a few props for its central performer. But generations of white people, however they came to experience the movie, have come away from it with nothing but a case of the warm-and-fuzzies.

Moreover, a goodly number of them are convinced that if black folk have a problem with this movie… well, that’s their problem and they need to get over it because this movie proves that we have indeed overcome and there is no longer a race problem in America and it’s all kumbaya up in here because this movie says it is and so on and so on and shoo bee doo be doo bee.

Jason Sperb, a professor of film and media studies at Indiana University, did us all a useful service by taking seriously this movie, its afterlives, and the reactions (or non-reactions, as the case may be) it has spawned. One would be tempted to wonder exactly why a movie very few people talk about when they talk about film history merits a scholarly breakdown. But Disney’s Most Notorious Film: Race, Convergence and the Hidden Histories of Song of the South (University of Texas, 2012) does more than dissect a film and the pros and cons around it. In its own way, it reveals that Song of the South, more or less by accident, holds a mirror to American views on race, with beauty or the lack thereof completely in the eyes of the beholder.

Song of the South, directed by Harve Foster and Wildred Jackson from a script-by-committee, was trumpeted as a technological breakthrough, incorporating live action and animation in the same film (Foster handled the live-action, Jackson the animation). Disney badly needed a hit to end a long dry spell after Mickey Mouse’s ascent to stardom, and hoped a little novelty and innovation would turn the tide.

The film combined animated retellings of Joel Chandler Harris’ Brer Rabbit tales with a family melodrama apparently set near that cheery period of Southern history known as Reconstruction. The basic conceit is that a wizened old black man, Uncle Remus, who defers to adult white voices whenever they speak, uses the Brer Rabbit tales to impart life lessons to a young white boy whose parents’ marriage is on the rocks.

Black critics of the film, both black newspaper writers and social justice advocates, lambasted the film’s depictions of plantation life as benign (indeed, the film has several filler scenes of happy darkies walking to and fro, with a dignified choir signing away from some studio soundstage). They were careful to not hate the player – James Baskett, who actually received an honorary Academy Award for his performance as Remus (making him, not Sidney Poitier, the first black man to clutch an Oscar), and who was not allowed to attend the film’s premiere at the Fox Theater in Atlanta. But they had no love for the game of relegating blacks to inferior status, and attempting to make the bad old days look not so bad.

General market reviewers didn’t like the movie much either – not out of any racial sympathies, but because they thought it wasn’t all that good (some observers also took note of the film’s defanging of Harris’ tales, spinning them from parables on power dynamics to lessons on how to cope with common childhood problems). Audiences felt likewise, and Song of the South was a box-office disappointment.

Disney re-released Song of the South in 1956, to similar audience disdain. But it was getting elements of the movie out there, anyway. It released books and record albums of the Harris tales-cum-cartoons, most notably “Tar Baby”. It showed excerpts from the movie on its television shows, including Disneyland and The Wonderful World of Disney. A comic strip based on Remus and the Harris characters ran until 1972.

And “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”, which won an Academy Award for Best Original Song, became part of the Disney musical canon. It has been rendered by performers including but not limited to: Mannheim Steamroller; Miley Cyrus; Ric Ocasek; Louis Armstrong; the Jackson 5; the Dave Clark Five; Sun Ra; Chevy Chase; Doris Day; and Donald Duck.

The studio didn’t stop trying to squeeze every last dime from Song of the South — we are, after all, talking about Disney, and squeezing every last dime from its properties is how the company has always rolled. It was released again in 1972, 1980, and again in 1986. By this time, black critics and audiences more or less ignored the re-existence of the film.

But a funny dynamic emerged: whites who saw it in those particular runs developed strong and lasting affinities to it. Sperb speculates that, in an era when divorce was increasingly prevalent, whites who saw the movie as children identified closely with the plot line, glossing over the odious racial stereotypes.

Still, Song of the South as a whole was too toxic for Disney to trumpet. It could sing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” all it wanted (years after the fact, probably few people know where the song comes from), and it could parcel out pieces and parts of it across its various properties, including the Splash Mountain ride at Disneyland. But the movie itself? Fuggedaboutit. Song of the South is not available on DVD in America, and there is no indication that it ever will be.

Sperb seems to think that’s a bad thing. Not because he’s a fan of the movie – he clearly isn’t. Rather, he thinks that there’s a lot to learn about racial attitudes from watching Song of the South and thinking about it critically, and suppressing it to the extent that Disney has might be missing an opportunity to have a meaningful discussion about how depictions of race, and the reactions to them, have evolved over time.

In that respect, he’s in luck. Thanks to the magic of YouTube, anyone with 100 minutes or so to spare can watch Song of the South from start to finish. Various fans have uploaded copies from rare VHS tapes, chopping it up in slices just under ten minutes so as to avoid Disney’s ever-present copyright trolls, and gushing with appreciation about what a wonderful movie they think it is.

Every so often someone uploads the whole thing as one solid chunk, which is how I finally experienced the movie a while back (that link seems to be gone now, no doubt due to those afore-mentioned trolls). As I settled in to watch it, I was prepared to want to climb through my monitor and strangle every person still living that was responsible for such offensive tripe. And I might well have, had I not been comatose by the end of it.

I say that because this above all else is the brutal truth about Song of the South: it’s boring as fuck.

I’ll grant you that coming from a world long accustomed to CGI pyrotechnics, seeing what passed for cutting-edge film technology 67 years ago isn’t all that thrilling, which isn’t Song of the South’s fault. And I have no way of knowing how many films back then had children as their protagonists, but we’re a little used to them nowadays, too (Beasts of the Southern Wild, anyone?). And as for films about troubled marriages, that’s another “so?” for 21st century audiences.

The racial component to Song of the South isn’t likely to boil a lot of black blood nowadays, either. First, younger blacks have had numerous other films as positive racial references – not as many as some might think, but enough to permanently relegate films like Song of the South to history’s attic of bad behaviour. Second, because of its relative unavailability, it’s not as notorious as Gone with the Wind, which raised the righteous ire of blacks folks in 1939 when it was released, and has done so more or less ever since (fun fact: Hattie McDaniel played a servant in both movies!). Ultimately, black folks today wouldn’t be much outraged by Song of the South, I suspect, because they wouldn’t see it as anything all that far removed from what they reckon all of American mass entertainment was like back then.

This is not to say, however, that Song of the South is not racially offensive at its core.

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…