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

Still from Song of the South (1946)

If Disney's Song of the South is as innocuous as its adherents claim, they need to think long and hard about why it’s out of official circulation.

Disney's Most Notorious Film: Race, Convergence, and the Hidden Histories of Song of the South

Publisher: University of Texas
Price: $55.00
Author: Jason Sperb
Length: 278 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-12

Song of the South

Director: Harve Foster, Wilfred Jackson
Cast: James Baskett, Bobby Driscoll, Luana Patten
Studio: Disney
Year: 1946

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.

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