Explaining the controversy around Disney's Splash Mountain and the 'racist' movie that inspired the popular ride
Disney is closing its iconic ride Splash Mountain on Monday, January 23.
The movie behind the ride, "Song of the South," was criticized for its depiction of Black Americans in a post-slavery era.
The rebranding of the ride is part of a broader reckoning of Disney's troubled history with racism.
When Disneyland unveiled Splash Mountain in 1989, it sparked renewed controversy over "Song of the South," the movie that had inspired the ride.
The 1946 live-action film follows the story of a 7-year-old boy named Johnny, who visits his grandmother's plantation in Georgia after the abolition of slavery. Bobby befriends an ex-slave living on the plantation named Uncle Remus, played by James Baskett, who spins moralistic tales about the adventures of Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Fox, and Br'er Bear.
"Song of the South" garnered some accolades after its premiere, winning an Oscar for the song "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" and an honorary award for Baskett's performance. (Baskett was not allowed to attend the film's premiere in Atlanta, which was then a segregated city.)
But the movie also received heated backlash for its romantic portrayal of the Old South — and of the racial hierarchy that existed in pre-abolition America. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., a congressman from Harlem, decried the film as an "insult to American minorities [and] everything that America as a whole stands for," while a journalist at The Afro-American slammed the movie as "a piece of propaganda for white supremacy as Hollywood ever produced."
Disney World's Splash Mountain ride, which focuses solely on the adventures of Br'er Rabbit, was an "attempt to sanitize Disney history" by omitting any mentions of the controversial aspects of the film, like Uncle Remus and little Johnny, according to Jason Sperb, a film professor at Oklahoma State University and author of "Disney's Most Notorious Film: Race, Convergence, and the Hidden Histories of Song of the South."
Disney tried to mitigate the racism in 'Song of the South'
Disney announced it would close Splash Mountain and "reimagine" it in the theme of "The Princess and the Frog," which features Disney's first Black princess, amid the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020.
"I've felt, as long as I've been CEO, that 'Song of the South' was — even with a disclaimer — just not appropriate in today's world," Disney CEO Bob Iger said at a shareholder meeting in 2020. Iger confirmed that the controversial movie would not be included in the Disney+ streaming service.
Even during the film's production in the 1940s, Disney knew it was navigating dangerous terrain and took steps to mitigate racist representations of plantation life. "Dumbo," which was released just a few years earlier in 1941, had been criticized for its depiction of wisecracking black crows, one of whom was named Jim Crow.
"The negro situation is a dangerous one," Disney publicist Vern Caldwell reportedly wrote to a producer. "Between the negro haters and the negro lovers there are many chances to run afoul of situations that could run the gamut all the way from the nasty to the controversial."
In screenwriter Dalton Reymond's original outline for "Song of the South," white characters called Uncle Remus an "old darkie," and Black characters referred to white family members as "massa." Recognizing the potential pitfalls of racial stereotypes, Disney hired additional consultants and writers to work with the Southern-born Reymond.
Reymond eventually removed a character named "Br'er Coon," but ignored many other suggestions to portray Black characters in a more dignified manner. In the final movie, one of the African American folktales Uncle Remus tells Johnny is "Br'er Rabbit and the Tar Baby," which refers to a golem made of black tar used to trap Br'er Rabbit.
Uncle Remus himself is a "one-dimensional character who has no purpose or identity beyond serving a white family," according to Sperb.
"The result of this is what some scholars call 'affectionate racism.' It's not an overtly derogatory depiction of a character, but there's something condescending about it that can in some ways be just as problematic," Sperb told Insider.
Reckoning with 'Song of the South'
"Song of the South" re-emerged in the 70s and 80s with the rise of the new right, spearheaded by figures like Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon.
"The rise of Nixon and Reagan during this time is very much a reaction against the Civil Rights Movement," Sperb said. "So there's this kind of nostalgia — more so than in the 40s — for an imagined earlier moment where there was a different racial hierarchy in this country."
Disney also became a bigger institution in the 70s, branding itself as a family-friendly television and theme park empire. The rebranding brought about a renewed fascination with "Song of the South" and its association with Disney, which installed the Splash Mountain ride in 1989.
The largely unknown roots of popular and lasting Disney songs like "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" and rides like Splash Mountain illustrate how "Song of the South" became one of "Hollywood's most resiliently offensive racist texts," according to Sperb.
Although Disney's reimagining of Splash Mountain is a step toward addressing its complicated history with racism, some argue that "Song of the South" should not be totally forgotten. In 2017, Whoopi Goldberg told Disney to stop hiding its history, saying she wanted to make the film available to the public.
"I'm trying to find a way to get people to start having conversations about bringing 'Song of the South' back, so we can talk about what it was and where it came from and why it came out," the actress told Yahoo Movies.
Sperb also believes there's value in keeping people informed about the issues underlying the movie — and Disney's history.
"Another question is: What do we do with Disney's legacy of stereotyping and this racial history?" Sperb said. "I think, to some degree, it's good to move beyond that, but there's also a danger where if 'Song of the South' went underground again, a lot of the same issues are going to reappear."
Read the original article on Insider