Friday, April 16, 2010


By Odienator
(for all BHM pieces, go here)

Negroes are inferior in every way!
Whites are much cleaner, that's what I say!
-Uncle Remus, Song of the South's SNL TV Funhouse Parody

My mother always said "if you don't want something you said to come back and bite you in the ass, don't write it down." In my Boondocks piece, I wrote that I hadn't seen Song of the South in decades, "but would kill to see [it] now." My comment had nothing to do with any enjoyment of the picture, but rather a burning question that always plagued me: If the movie is so offensive, why was I taken to see it as a little kid? When I decided to take requests for 4 or 5 extra Black History Mumf pieces, I never dreamed I would not only be told where to easily find the entire film, but that it would also be requested. Had I been blessed with clairvoyance, that line I wrote a few pieces ago might have read "if you request Birth of a Nation, Soul Plane or Song of the South, I'll kill you myself."

I was 4 when I saw Song of the South the first time, and I had no memory of the film whatsoever. I do remember that my aunt took me and two of my cousins, and that I wasted half a bucket of popcorn on the floor by accident, but I couldn't remember a plot point or a scene to save my life. When I thought of Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah, I saw Phylicia Rashad and the Cosby Show kids singing it on a commercial for Disney World. The thought that followed: Would the stars of the most prominent Black show of the era be singing the theme song of this movie if the film were as racist as its reputation claimed?

When Disney decided not to release Song of the South on any form of American home media, the definitive word on Uncle Remus' rep felt written. Disney is a company that will do almost anything for money, from threatening you with its sadomasochistic-sounding Disney Vault ("if you don't buy Bedknobs and Broomsticks before next week, it'll be locked in the Disney vault FOREVER and we'll kill Angela Lansbury!") to re-releasing Toy Story 1 and 2 in theaters in 3-D. If the Mouse House took no issue with Aladdin's lyric about Arabian barbarism (at least not initially), nor did it find anything wrong with the stereotypical avian representation of Blacks singing "well I be dun seen 'bout ev'rythang when I see a elephant fly" in Dumbo, Song of the South must have made Birth of A Nation look like Do the Right Thing.

Over the years, I did some research on the film, finding several websites that were petitioning Disney to stop fearing political correctness and release the film. There are links to online petitions at several of them. The common denominators of these sites were that they were all run by White people, and they all cited the same reasons why the movie shouldn't be condemned. Even more amusing was that they all found the same Black person to defend the film. "One, ONE NEGRO! Ah-ah-ahhh" yells the Count while lightning flashes behind him. This homogeneity only added to the intrigue. Things weren't looking good in my mind for Uncle Remus.

Some of these sites blamed Black people and organizations like the NAACP for keeping the film banned. Some sites' pieces were commendable for expressing their arguments clearly and in detail without disavowing that Black people may find the film offensive. But without seeing the film again, I couldn't form a final opinion. Donald Bogle, one of the few Black writers in my research to comment on the film, called it "a corruptive piece of Old South propaganda put together to make money." The one truly positive thing Bogle wrote about Song of the South was that it "glaringly signaled the demise of the Negro as fanciful entertainer or comic servant."

I was pretty pissed off by the film fans who blamed Blacks for keeping them from Disney's Darky. They should be protesting the Mouse in Orlando. In reality, the NAACP has no stance on the film nowadays, and in 1946, it was a lot nicer to the movie than Donald Bogle: The organization at least thought the animation was nice. As for Black folks, find me one who cares about stopping this film's release. Hell, find me one under 35 who has even heard of it. I don't normally speak for all of Black America, but I'm going to do just that in this next sentence: DISNEY IS KEEPING YOU FROM SONG OF THE SOUTH, NOT US.

My curiosity about Song of the South had nothing to do with the Black History Mumf series. I wanted to know why someone as righteously Black as my late aunt would expose me to this picture if it truly were that which it was portrayed to be. I had no intention of writing about it here, because I feared that a viewing would take me back to the dark place I traversed in my piece on blackface, the place where my youthful innocence was corrupted by the recognition of cinematic stereotype. Given the chance, I'd watch Song of the South, but I figured I wouldn't want to talk about it afterward, let alone give it airtime here.

And then it was requested by the coder of my 2006-2008 pieces at The House Next Door, Mr. Jeffrey Hill, who not only asked for it but also told me where to get it online. Mr. Hill is currently being held hostage in the Disney Vault, getting waterboarded by The Little Mermaid in an attempt to find out who posted the entire movie on YouTube. I suppose I owe him a Song of the South piece now, especially since April is National Confederacy Month, according to Virginia governor Forgetful Jones Bob McDonnell. (National Confederacy Mumf at BMV? Not in this lifetime!). So here we are.

But first, let me answer the two most pressing questions about Song of the South:

1. Should Disney release this movie on DVD in America? Absolutely.
2. Is Song of the South as racist as its rep indicates? Well…keep reading. (You didn't think I'd just give you my goodies without dinner and foreplay, did you?)

90 seconds into Song of the South, my brain told me to turn it off. I was having a particularly bad day, and the last thing I needed was to sit through yet another movie that extolled the virtues of the Confederacy. Then Gregg Toland's name appeared in the credits, and my fate was sealed. Toland is the cinematographer who won the Oscar for lensing Wuthering Heights, where he pioneered several techniques he'd use on a certain first movie by Orson Welles. Cin-tog is my favorite technical aspect of movies, so Toland is like a god. I will watch anything of his. I don’t know how good a job he did on Song of the South because the YouTube version is in lousy shape.

Song of the South opens on a Georgia plantation, where, to quote My Old Kentucky Home, "tis Summer and the darkies are gay." No, Uncle Remus doesn't turn into Auntie RuPaul at night; by gay I mean happy. This is complaint #1 regarding Song of the South: These folks are just too damn content to be working on a plantation. They're all singin', all dancin' and all cullud. I'd like to believe that these folks are singing because Song of the South is a musical, but I'd need to be less astute than I am. The imagery is crafted in such a way as to invoke countless other movies about slavery and the South. Some of the sequences are similar to scenes of Blacks in Willie Wyler's The Little Foxes, which Toland also shot. The NAACP's 1946 statement called this type of depiction "an idyllic master-slave relationship."

Defenders are quick to point out (correctly) that Song of the South takes place during Reconstruction, not slavery. My response to that is "so what?" Miss Sally's family didn't get these people from Reconstruction's answer to FUBU. These people were slaves before, and probably on this plantation. Not every former slave was Nat Turner, but I highly doubt they were all happy with their subservient lot in life, either, as movie makers would have you believe. Song of the South is guilty of continuing Hollywood's stereotypical love affair with a time that's now "Gone With the Wind."

To this heavenly piece of Southern fried land comes Miss Sally, her journalist husband, and her son, Johnny (Bobby Driscoll). Miss Sally is played by Phoebe Tyler Wallingford herself, Ruth Warrick. As someone who watched All My Children on and off for almost four decades, I knew Miss Sally was going to be snooty and mean. Warrick doesn't disappoint. Her husband can't wait to get away from her. The film says he needs to go to Scarlett O'Hara's hometown to continue his controversial journalism, but we know he's fitting to divorce Miss Sally's cold, calculated behind. Johnny knows too, and he tries to run away. He winds up on the wrong side of the plantation tracks, where he is introduced to Uncle Remus (James Baskett). Uncle Remus is telling stories about Br'er Rabbit, and when he discovers Johnny, he offers to be Jim to his runaway Huck Finn.

For a satirist like me, Uncle Remus is a nice pitch straight up the middle and across the plate. When I wrote Get To Know Your Movie Negroes: Part I back in 2008 here at BMV, I had NO idea that I was singing the entire song about Uncle Remus. He hits the trifecta, fitting the description of all three of the movie types I wrote about in that song: He's a Sidekick Negro, a Magical Negro, and a Noble Negro.

We meet the Magical Negro first. Uncle Remus tells Johnny a story about Br'er Rabbit running away from home. The moral of the story is that Johnny can't run from his problems, but to get to that moral, Uncle Remus employs the power of Disney animation. This leads to the animated sequence most readily available to consumers: Uncle Remus sings Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah, earning its songwriters the Best Song Oscar in the process. I've seen this sequence out of context many times, but in context, it plays differently. Disney tends to cut out what happens just before Baskett starts singing, because he's going on and on in that slave dialect o'his. In context, however, the sequence is a big surprise. Remus is rambling on and on and then BAM! The screen behind his close-up opens up to this bright blue animated world and the camera pulls back so we can take it all in. I actually jumped. It was so damn effective I wound it back to watch it happen again.

For that split second, I felt like a little kid. I thoroughly enjoyed this sequence, and not just because I remembered Tracy Morgan's hilarious SNL explanation of why Uncle Remus is seeing Mr. Bluebird on his shoulder. That protective coating I put on whenever I watch old movies with Black people in them slipped off for a moment, especially when I realized that Uncle Remus correctly conjugates the verb to be in his song. Stutterers and Studio System Hollywood Negroes have something in common: Their speech is correct only when they sing. Sure Uncle Remus also makes up the word satisfactual, but if lily-White nanny Mary Poppins can pull fake words out her prim and proper ass, why can't a chocolate Black substitute grandfather?

Next, Uncle Remus shows us he's a Sidekick Negro. He, like the film, seems to devote all his time to Johnny's issues, and he's always there to tell Johnny a story or give him what passes for Soul(TM) back in the late 1800's. He and Johnny become inseparable for much of the film, and he tries to talk some sense into Johnny regarding a dog he gets from poor little White girl, Ginny Favers, on the plantation. Uncle Remus even helps Johnny deal with this dog, which Miss Sally told him to return, becoming Johnny's unwitting partner in crime. Ginny Favers' brothers want to drown the dog, and they like beating up Johnny because there's nothing else to do in this joint.

Assisting Uncle Remus in Sidekick Negro duties is Toby, a little Black boy whose name was probably Kunta Kinte before Miss Sally's mother bought him. Complaint #2 about Song of the South is the way it treats Toby. He doesn't seem to have any parents, Uncle Remus seems to ignore him, and when Johnny throws a party later in the film, his so called good friend Toby is nowhere to be found. I can believe that Miss Sally wouldn't want Toby to be at Johnny's party, so that didn't bother me. What I found more intriguing is something I hadn't read too much about: The depiction of the Favers clan raises some serious class issues. Miss Sally never addresses her desire not to have an integrated birthday party for Johnny—that's a given. But she certainly lets Johnny know she doesn't want that poor White trash girl he's sweet on, the one who gave him that houn' dog, eating cake in her yard. I realized that Song of the South was an equal opportunity stereotype offender. The Blacks have these darky stereotypes of singin' and dancin' for massa, and the Favers clan are the punchline to every joke Jeff Foxworthy ever told. Poor little rich boy Johnny bridges the gap by befriending a rainbow coalition of broke-ass people.

Ginny's puppy present leads us to the biggest complaint—Complaint #3—about Song of the South. Uncle Remus tells the kids the story of Br'er Rabbit and the Tar Baby, whose moral is not to mess around with something you have no business messing with in the first place. Unfortunately, this animated sequence features Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear, two stand-ins for the Favers brothers, creating a fake person out of tar. This gives the impression, so I'm told, that they've made a Black person. Br'er Rabbit comes by, and when the Tar Baby won't be all Southern-like and return his greeting, Br'er Rabbit gets pissed off, punching the Tar Baby and getting stuck like a dinosaur visiting La Brea. Br'er Fox and Bear come out, planning to eat their trapped foe ("the tar will make a tasty sauce for dis hey'ere Rabbit," I suppose they said to themselves), but Br'er Rabbit uses reverse psychology to outsmart them. Johnny uses this same plan on the Favers boys, resulting in them getting their asses beaten by their mother.

When the Tar Baby sequence started, I got nervous. But when I saw what the Tar Baby looked like, I said "OH COME ON, PEOPLE!" Here I was, expecting it to look like Wesley or Miles Davis, and the damn thing doesn't even look like a person, let alone a Black person. The Disney animators make it react as if it were actually made out of tar. Its movement, and subsequent destruction, become a surreal image that, at least for me, did not evoke anything human.

I have been called a litany of slurs by White people in the almost 40 years I've been on this planet, but I've NEVER been called a Tar Baby. I thought it might have something to do with me being rather light-skinned, so I did some research. (Yes folks, I love research.) I talked to numerous older Black people, most of them dark skinned, and I asked "have you ever been called a Tar Baby?" No one had. My favorite response was "no, but my ex-wife once said I was closer to midnight than 11:59 PM."

To be clear, this isn't to say Tar Baby has never been used as a derogatory term.

Here's what happens when you read too much into something:

If we follow the standard defense of this tale, making the Tar Baby a racist stereotype opens up a big, fascinating can of worms. Br'er Rabbit is supposed to be Black, and Br'er Fox and Rabbit are supposed to be the rednecks he constantly outsmarts with brains rather than brawn. If we take this as so, then Br'er Rabbit's tale suddenly becomes the cartoon equivalent of the rap song Self-Destruction, that is, an anti-Black on Black crime public service announcement. These two racist White characters hope to get rid of the Black character by provoking him to fight another brother, causing the near destruction of both.

Holy shit! That actually made sense! Oh my God. Oh sweet Jesus. I think I am having an aneurysm.

The Noble Negro in Uncle Remus comes out when Miss Sally forbids him from telling Johnny any more stories. Miss Sally misunderstands why Johnny is late for his own birthday party, a party she is throwing but not inviting anybody Johnny would want at his birthday bash. Johnny is being a true Southern gentleman, helping Ginny clean the mud off her dress so that she may look presentable for his party. Uncle Remus cheers the duo up by telling them about the Laughing Place, creating the last of the full cartoon sequences. Miss Sally thinks that this is the reason for Johnny's lateness. Uncle Remus feels as if his life now has no meaning, and he decides to leave for Atlanta (ironically, the same place where Mr. Sally ran off). Johnny tries to chase down Uncle Remus to prevent him from leaving, but he accidentally runs into a bull pen. The resident bull gives Johnny a taste of Bull 3:16, clobbering the everlasting gobstopper shit out of him.

As Johnny lay unconscious in bed, and the goofy Black background choir that occasionally interrupts the movie sings something that feels like "Oh Lawwwwd, please save dis' here White chile," Mr. Sally returns to make another go at it with his wife. Miss Sally realizes the error of her ways, while her mother, a fan of Uncle Remus' stories, gives her that "you dumb bitch" look. Johnny starts calling out for Uncle Remus, and the man shows up, forsaking his own "escape" to be the Sidekick Negro to the star of The Window. There's a close-up of Johnny's hand in Uncle Remus' hand as the latter tells a story, and that's been used as all manner of symbolic excuse for the movie's stereotypical issues. Truthfully, I'd be more inclined to buy that logic if Uncle Remus' hand were clasped in the hand of an ADULT. Johnny is a kid, and kids are by nature color-blind. They have to be corrupted.

I've evaded the question long enough: Is Song of the South racist? I think it is loaded with stereotypes, and its defenders, even the most compelling ones, downplay or dismiss the consequences of these. I can understand Bogle's claims of propaganda, and I agree with him on that.

As for it being racist, I am reminded of what Terry, the guy I used to work with at the video store said about Ralph Bakshi's Coonskin. Coonskin is an intentionally racist and offensive satire of Song of the South, bringing out all the things one can glean from Disney's movie and making them explicit. Terry was the most militant Black person I have ever met, and while I thought Coonskin was damn near brilliant, I was afraid he'd burn down the store if he watched it. People came into the store telling him he HAD to see it, and I kept hiding copies of it so he couldn't.

One night, he literally WRESTLED the movie from my hands. The next day, he came in, bragging about how hard he laughed. He told me "this was stereotypical and offensive as shit, but it wasn't racist because we win at the end."

I cringed a lot harder at the stereotypes in Stormy Weather, a movie I liked and wrote about here, and I didn't call it racist. So I can't say Song of the South is racist. Baskett brings as much dignity as he can to the role, and his voiceover work as Br'er Fox is an outstanding example of fast talk and stammer. The movie does seem to revere him, stereotypes and all. I wouldn't have picked any of the stuff I picked up at 39 when I was 4, so my aunt is completely absolved for taking me to see this picture. All I would have seen is an old man telling me cartoon stories, and I probably would have enjoyed myself.

I CAN say Disney IS being racist about Song of the South, and here's why. They are implying that they won't release this movie because of what Black people might say or do, and they are saying it without conclusive proof. Warner Brothers has released several questionable cartoons and movies, and they slap a disclaimer on them telling you that the material is potentially offensive. Disney has done the same thing with some of its shorts as well, having Leonard Maltin show up to gently warn you that these are the MicKKKey Mouse cartoons. What Disney is doing is either the greediest thing they've ever done (the more demand, the more we can charge when we finally put it out) or employing a way of telling you that you can't differentiate between your own beliefs and a movie's. Either way, using us as an excuse is reprehensible.

For his trouble, Mr. Baskett was given an honorary Oscar for his role as Uncle Remus. Hedda Hopper, I believe, took credit for guilting the Academy into giving him one, making him technically the first Black man to get an Oscar. Of course, he couldn't go pick it up in segregated Atlanta, but never mind.


Steven Boone said...

This essay is jam-packed with pop culture icons, from Uncle Walt to Uncle Jemima, but as it went on, I kept thinking of one you didn't mention but evoked in your storytelling: Hitchcock. You are the new master of suspense, haha. In this case, the MacGuffin is Song of the South and the bomb under the chair is RACISM.

Not to mention the Schlitz Malt Liquor bull. I fell out, man.


Jeffrey Hill said...

Readers should know that my captors have been nothing short of generous to me here in the Disney vault. In fact, just yesterday, Ariel granted me an extra ration of lard for my supper!
I asked her for two clam shells in which to scoop up the lard, but she refused.

This doesn't concern Song of the South, but I've noticed several occasions where you've mentioned the crows in Dumbo vis a vis racial stereotyping, yet I've always thought the more curious one in the film was the tent erection scene with the muscular and faceless roustabouts singing in the rain, keeping the beat with sledge hammers. I'm not saying it's derogatory, just fascinating.
(Was that just a second request?)

odienator said...

Jeffrey, you should have asked The Little Mermaid the question I posed in my review of her movie: If they use clams for bras, what do they use for a girdle? An octopus?

I need to take another look at the scene you site in Dumbo. Back to YouTube I go.

Boone, my buddy the Schlitz Malt Liquor Bull paid for that product placement. And that wasn't suspense, that was trepidation!

Jeffrey Hill said...

It is odd, as you pointed out, Odie, that the film is still available on Youtube and has been for at least a year. I haven't seen the Disney legal team so reticent since Farfur the Mouse.

Lain Shakespeare said...

Great post.

One of the things about Uncle Remus that doesn't quite translate into Song of the South is Remus's commitment to undermining white authority. In the books he initiates the little boy into African-American culture, continually derides the kid's father, and manipulates the boy for his own ends.

Disney's version ends up being more like the plantation romances that Joel Chandler Harris satirized than the actual Uncle Remus books. Harris's trick was to present Uncle Remus in a way that white folks were comfortable with, feed them a worldview that they would have otherwise not tolerated, and yet have them demanding more of it anyway.

Disney does manage to make most of the white characters difficult to like, but overall their Remus doesn't go nearly as far as the original.

odienator said...

One of the things about Uncle Remus that doesn't quite translate into Song of the South is Remus's commitment to undermining white authority.

I've heard this before. The reason I didn't mention any of the source material was that I had not read any of it. Hell, I didn't know Br'er was supposed to be short for "Brother."

Disney undermines your theory completely by casting Br'er Rabbit as the Bobby Driscoll character. This makes it not only a class issue, but also implies that the rich kid is better than the poor kids.

Many times before on the 'Net, I've raged against Old Hollywood's slavish devotion to, and fear of, the South. I've not been nice about it either, for a variety of reasons, most notably that which you point out: How much richness and subversiveness were removed and/or diluted to satiate a bunch of racist sons of bitches?

I'll have to investigate some of Harris' stories at some point.

Lain Shakespeare said...

I work with Harris's legacy and African-American folklore (and -- sigh -- Song of the South) for a living, and I can tell you that it's super fascinating and complex and not at all what the film would have you believe.

Here's my essay on Uncle Remus that might be a good primer -- it at least has some good source material:

odienator said...

Lain Shakespeare, thanks for the link. I'll check it out. Working with African-American folklore sounds fascinating, at least to me. Any good books on the subject of this type of folklore you'd care to recommend?

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Anonymous said...

I don't think the SNL thing was a parody, I think it actually was one of the verses that was not included. I think Disney is trying to spread the rumour that it was a parody. Watch and listen to it again, you will see.