Silencing 'Song of the South': Why Disney's most racist film remains a cultural flash point

Kevin Polowy
·Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
<em>Song of the South.</em> (Disney)
Song of the South. (Disney)

The racial reckoning that has come in the wake of George Floyd’s killing and weeks of protests over police brutality across the country has had a profound impact on all facets of the entertainment world.

Comedians like Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Tiny Fey have been ripped for their roles in old blackface sketches, reality shows like Cops and Live PD have been canceled for glorifying the use of force by police, multiple white actors have stepped down from voicing characters of color in animated TV shows, and the country bands Lady Antebellum and the Dixie Chicks amended their monikers to disassociate themselves from the taint of slavery and the historical mistreatment of Black Americans. Meanwhile, debates continue to rage over the legacies and contemporary appropriateness of screen favorites Gone With the Wind (which was temporarily removed from HBO Max, then brought back with a disclaimer that the film “denies the horrors of slavery”) and The Dukes of Hazzard (which may be scrapped from streaming on Amazon’s IMDb TV due to its Confederate iconography, much to the chagrin — but not surprise — of co-star Ben Jones).

While known for its family-friendly fare and wholesome corporate image, the Walt Disney Co. has not been immune. The behemoth studio has long grappled with its problematic past, highlighted most recently by its decision to apply warning labels to films like Dumbo, Lady and the Tramp and The Jungle Book noting their “outdated cultural depictions” with the launch of its Disney+ streaming platform.

No film, however, has been as emblematic of the company’s racist tropes as the 1946 release Song of the South, the live-action/animation hybrid about a young white boy (Bobby Driscoll’s Johnny) who befriends an older Black man (James Baskett’s Uncle Remus) who works on his grandmother’s plantation during the Reconstruction era following the Civil War.

Song of the South has long been condemned for its shameful stereotypical depictions of African-Americans and cheery look at post-slavery Black plantation life. Bob Iger, Disney’s executive chairman, has buried the film in the vaults, steadfastly refusing to release it. In fact, the film has never been issued on any home formats in the United States, from VHS to LaserDisc to DVD to Blu-ray to digital, and Song of the South has no presence on Disney’s hugely successful streaming service. Last week Disney continued to scrub the film from its history, announcing the theme park ride Splash Mountain would no longer feature characters from the film or the film’s Oscar-winning Best Song, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” and instead be rebranded as a Princess and the Frog-themed attraction.

A vocal contingent of Song of the South fans, however, still argue for the movie’s release.

In a 2017 interview with Yahoo Entertainment, EGOT-winning actress and View co-host Whoopi Goldberg raised eyebrows when she made the case — while being honored by the studio as a “Disney Legend” at the D23 Expo — that Disney should rerelease Song of the South to encourage dialogue.

“I’m trying to find a way to get people to start having conversations about bringing Song of the South back,” Goldberg told us at the time. “So we can talk about what it was and where it came from and why it came out.” (Goldberg was unavailable for further comment for this article.)

Whether or not Song of the South holds historical, social or educational importance remains a thorny topic for scholars, activists and cultural critics, particularly in the Black community.

“It’s always a balancing act,” says Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP. “It’s the balance between the historical context and understanding how people were viewed, balanced against how the content being viewed would reinforce negative and/or racist stereotypes of the community, and how those stereotypes will play out to impact one’s quality of life. And that’s a balancing act that must be answered sometimes case by case. And sometimes there’s a clear response to it. It all depends on the content.”

The NAACP does not hold an official position on Song of the South (though Johnson admits he knows “a generation of people who hate it”), unlike D.W. Griffith’s infamous 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation. One of the civil rights organization’s earliest campaigns involved public opposition to the film that paints the Ku Klux Klan as hood-wearing heroes. The Birth of a Nation “should be incinerated because that is a film that caused the spread of the Klan across the country,” Johnson says. “It spread its racial hatred in ways that caused violence against many people during that time period, actually for a few decades.”

Todd Boyd, a professor of cinema and media studies at the University of Southern California, saw Song of the South in a movie theater when he was a child in the early 1970s.

“Hollywood has a racist history,” says Boyd. “And Disney in particular has a racist history involving certain films and certain images. So to recognize the point that we’re at now, it’s not that you want to erase history, but context needs to be provided. And you look at these images as products of their time. The time was overtly racist. Presumably people are more enlightened now, or at least you’d like them to be.”

Boyd does see the educational value in the film, but it’s not going to please fans that want to consume it as nostalgic entertainment. “I think it’s helpful for people to know that these images were created and circulated in society. And at one time, were thought to be suitable for consumption,” he says. “It’s important for people to know that it was wrong when the film was created. ... It is also helpful to have that as a record of the racism from a previous era. And one would hope that people learn from that.”

<em>Song of the South</em> movie poster. (Disney)
Song of the South movie poster. (Disney)

Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences and professor of sociology and African-American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, commends Disney for how it has handled certain films with questionable scenes or content by adding disclaimers on Disney+, but notes that South is an outlier in the studio’s canon.

Song of the South is particularly egregious,” he says. “The imagery is just really, really abysmal. So I think absent a plan to make it available in ways that guarantee that it will be properly contextualized, probably the right thing to do is just to put it away for a while.

“But that said, it would be a huge loss if that film weren’t available to film classes that talk about racism and Hollywood. Because to understand the evolution of the industry, you need to have access to films like Song of the South to understand what the process was and how that process either parallels or differs from the process today. Because many of the elements of Old Hollywood are still there.”

Some of the film’s supporters have made the argument that burying Song of the South could erase the contributions of Black film pioneers like Baskett and Hattie McDaniel — who plays a maid in the film and of course also won an Academy Award for the increasingly scrutinized Gone With the Wind.

“I don’t have a reaction to that comment. I don’t even know if it’s a valid comment that could be made,” Johnson says.

“I mean, what have they accomplished?” Boyd asks. “In a racist society and racist industry, you found Black people who were willing to play stereotypical roles for a paycheck.”

Disney had no official comment when reached for this article. In March, however, Iger, transitioning from CEO to executive chairman, told shareholders, “I’ve felt as long as I was CEO that Song of the South, even with a disclaimer, was just not appropriate in today's world. It’s actually true with some of the other things we've made as well.”

The rebranding of Splash Mountain further signals there are no plans to engage with Song of the South in any medium, even with Iger moving on. “The new concept is inclusive — one that all of our guests can connect with and be inspired by, and it speaks to the diversity of the millions of people who visit our parks each year,” Michael Ramirez, public relations director for Disneyland Resort, said in the announcement of the ride’s forthcoming Princess and the Frog look.

“It’s important that our guests be able to see themselves in the experiences we create. Because we consider ourselves constant learners, we go to great lengths to research and engage cultural advisors and other experts to help guide us along the way. I am incredibly proud to see this work continue to move forward with great support from leadership across Disney,” said Carmen Smith, the executive at Walt Disney Imagineering spearheading the change.

The consensus among the cultural experts we spoke to is that Disney simply has little to gain by publicly rereleasing Song of the South, save for satisfying a niche audience that many will argue are staking claim to the wrong side of history. The studio is clearly uneasy with the troubling aspects of its past and sees no positives in making its most notorious title widely available.

“That’s going to be an announcement that draws a lot of attention just in and of itself,” says Boyd, who adds bluntly: “If it’s embarrassing to Disney that they created this film at one time, then that’s unfortunate, but they shouldn’t have created it. We’re all responsible for our actions. I guess what I keep getting at is there’s value in the potential social embarrassment of having contributed to racism in this form.”

Which suggests Disney would have too much to lose and too little to gain, so expect Song of the South to remain locked deep in the Disney vaults for the foreseeable future.

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