Friday, December 11, 2015

Who's Afraid of Song of the South?

"Now this here tale didn't happen just yesterday nor the day before, it was a long time ago... the critters, they was closer to the folks, and the folks, they was closer to the critters -- and if you'll excuse me for saying so, it was better all around."
                   -- Uncle Remus in Disney's Song of the South (1946)

Disney's Song of the South (1946)
There is a new book available by Jim Korkis that is worth reading if you ever wanted to know the details behind the making of Disney's Song of the South. Just the mere name of the movie sparks heated emotions because of a sad mixture of misunderstandings and urban legends. Every time someone tells me that the movie is "racist," I calmly ask them what makes the film "racist." The response I receive is always one of two: "The movie depicts slavery" or "The movie portrays slaves happy as they work in the fields." Every time I ask if they saw the movie, the answer is always "no." You can imagine their surprise when then I inform them that at no time in the movie are people depicted working in the fields. In fact, the movie takes place after the Civil War during a period known as Reconstruction and African Americans in the movie are happy and singing because they are free men, hired hands, getting paid from a kind and generous employer. At no time is slavery ever depicted in the movie.

Here's another fun fact: Gone With the Wind (1939) does depict slavery. The Birth of a Nation (1915) not only depicts slavery, but the KKK rides to the rescue as champions of justice. If someone wants to claim Song of the South, the same movie with Uncle Remus walking down the bunny trail singing "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah," as a racist film... they need to see it first. And therein lies the problem. The Disney Corporation has retained the rights to keep the movie locked in the vaults with no hope of a commercial VHS or DVD release.

Outside Splash Mountain at The Magic Kingdom.
On Wednesday, March 23, 2011, at the Disney Annual Shareholders Meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah, the final question asked of Disney CEO Bob Iger, just minutes from him concluding the meeting, was the yearly query about when the Disney Company might release the live-action/animated movie Song of the South on DVD. After all, November of that year would mark the 65th anniversary of the film's release. Although smiling, Iger seemed irritated that the same question kept coming up at every Disney shareholder meeting. His response can be summarized in a single word: no.

I have a few friends who are on the "inside" of Disney and they explained to me that every year a list of movies to be released on DVD is proposed during the executive board meetings. Song of the South is always proposed. And Bob Iger always removes the title from that list and comments how Disney will not go down that route. Yet, from my inside sources, everyone else at Disney confidently admits the movie should be released on DVD and knows it will generate a lot of sales for the company. That is why they keep sneaking it on the list every year. Today, money may not be the motive. In 1939, Walt Disney bought the screen rights to the Uncle Remus stories from the Harris family for $10,000 -- an investment that paid off. Adding to the revenue of all the books, comics, records, toys and other items associated with the film, it was estimated that the Disney Company received $300 million over the years -- not bad from a $10,000 investment.

The last time the movie was theatrically released was in 1986. The movie poster for the re-release strongly emphasized the animated sequences, downgrading the live action segments (the opposite of what the 1946 poster depicted). The movie has since been released commercially on VHS in England, which many fans resorted to buying and converting to DVD. Even today a google search of "Song of the South DVD" will generate a number of websites where you can buy the movie -- all bootlegs of course, and of varied quality (make sure you get one without the Japanese subtitles).

When Walt Disney conceived of making the movie, it was his intention that Song of the South would be his own Gone with the Wind -- complete with Atlanta premiere and long lines at the movie palaces. But instead there were small pockets of picketers in Boston and Los Angeles who made the choice to disrupt the serene locale. The New York Tribune reported that at a press conference, Walt Disney said that any real antagonism towards the film would come from radicals, "who just love stirring up trouble whenever they can." The NAACP later admitted that their initial criticism of the movie was based on faulty information. In an interview in February 1947, Hattie McDaniel (who played Aunt Tempy in the movie) defended the film: "If I had for one moment considered any part of the picture degrading or harmful to my people I would not have appeared therein." James Baskett, who played the role of Uncle Remus in the movie, remarked in the same article in The Criterion, "I believe that certain groups are doing my race more harm in seeking to create dissension than can ever possibly come out of Song of the South."

The movie has since been televised over the BBC2 in the United Kingdom, many times, with no public outcry or rioting in the streets. The film was released commercially in several European and South American countries, including France, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Japan, Argentina and Brazil. 

The film was never meant to be a political statement, not a malicious attempt to depict foolish stereotyping of any race, but rather an attempt to show that children of all races and different social statuses could play together as friends, learn important moral lessons from the stories, and survive times of trouble (in this case a combination of separated parents and bullies who want to murder a puppy) by finding a place to laugh and momentarily forget the hardships. 

A new book was published documenting the making of Song of the South, providing a detail level regarding the controversy surrounding former Disney employees that either quit or were fired, who in turn attempted to suppress the movie by stirring up trouble when it was released in 1946. Who's Afraid of the Song of the South? and Other Forbidden Disney Stories, written by Jim Korkis, is worth reading. The same book also documents how a Disney live action comedy caused the FBI to spy on Walt Disney, why Walt Disney once suggested Mickey Mouse commit suicide, and other true stories. You can buy a copy from here:

Some of the information on this blog post originates from Jim's book, which only adds to the validity of this statement: If you are looking for something cool to give a friend this holiday season, or for their birthday, this book makes a great gift. Buy one for yourself as well.

In the meantime, the only thing the Disney Corporation has created is a situation where the only way you can see and study this historic film is to support piracy... and a controversy that exists only in the minds of those who have never seen it but tell of legends and stories that are less to be believed... I for one prefer the story Uncle Remus tells of "The Laughing Place," versus the misconceptions people insist time and time again. Disney accomplished a charming movie and it is a treasure to behold.