Gary J. Chambers Editorial - "Song of the South: Suberted American History" Originally published May 16, 2007.
Unlike most Americans, I am fortunate to have Song of the South among my film library. Ten years ago, when I lived in Seattle, I was able to acquire the film from the late great film collector, George Lasitos at Scarecrow Video. It was released in the early nineties on Laserdisc in Japan (remember those?).
At the time I was in my mid-twenties and had no preconceptions of the film...no agenda. I was just a Disney fan looking to see a film that wasn't in available in the States. At the time I didn't really understand the rationale behind its lack of availability nor did I question it.
When I saw the picture, I was utterly enchanted! The story, performances, animation, and score were, and are, all stellar. This movie embodies the best qualities of Disney Feature Animation and I place it among my top five recommendations in the Disney pantheon.
Only recently have I learned of the controversy surrounding the film and to this day fail to fully understand why it has become the designated celluloid sacrificial lamb and scapegoat of the Disney Features.
Song of the South does not take place during the Civil War, but rather, during reconstruction. The African American characters that populate the film are by and large depicted in a manner which dictates contentment rather than strife. While I'll grant that this was the beginning of great challenge for our African Americans, this story takes place before the egregious Jim Crow laws, which ultimately led to 'separate but equal' facilities throughout the South.
"To truly understand all that is going on within Song of the South, we must begin with a man named Joel Chandler Harris. Born in 1848, Harris grew up during the days of the antebellum South, when slavery was still very much a part of life. He lived on the Turnwold Plantation and spent a great deal of his time with the slaves.
One slave in particular, Uncle Bob Capers, told him fantastic stories of anthropomorphic characters. Those stories, along with the unique dialect in which he told them, remained in Harris' mind, until 1876, when he took over a column in the Atlanta Constitution called "Uncle Si."
It can then be said that the tales Walt Disney would later base his movie upon were created with the innocent intent to publicize and thereby preserve the stories of the slaves through literature.'" ~ By Christian Willis, September 1, 2001. Revised 9/20/01
I agree, Song of the South celebrates not denigrates the black people's oral tradition.
Evolved from that tradition are the "speech patterns" the dialect portrayed in the picture. Eric comments, "The language of the African American characters is far more uneducated than that of the white characters". Dan responds, "Its stereotypical slave talk". This is just plain ignorant. What you hear in the film is African American Vernacular English (AAVE), colloquially known as Ebonics.
It dates back to the trans-Atlantic slave trade itself and is a fusion, or "pidgin" of two or more languages, created in order to communicate among themselves and their captors. These pidgins became fully developed creoles in the Americas. Significant numbers of blacks still speak some of these creoles. While many white Americans vilify the black American's use of their "bad" or "lazy" English, among linguists there is no debate, as AAVE, like all dialects, shows consistent internal logic and structure. So, contrary to your comments the dialect portrayed in the film is more accurate than "insensitive." What are far more unrealistic are the jarring Southern California accents of Bobby Dricoll and Luana Patten.
Any stereotyping being committed is by the ignorant who assume that this particular usage of the English language should be construed as unintelligent. As one who lived in New Orleans for a time, I speak from experience that there are of plenty of Caucasians who communicate in a similar manner, nor did I ever find that these 'black speech patterns' were ever inevitably or invariably associated with an inherent level of intelligence.
On the issue of subservience, Dan comments, "They do bend to the whims of the plantation owners." In actuality, there is only one instance in the picture we see any direct act of servitude towards a white individual, at the beginning of the film when Ned removes the bags from the carriage. In reality, many of the slaves who worked on plantations actually stayed on during reconstruction. Again, what we see in the film is not unrepresentative of that which should be construed as historically accurate.
Eric goes on, "It may give children those ideas you know, that there are differences between us, which is something that Disney is totally against now…their movies are all about inclusion and other cultures and things like that". Song of the South does nothing if but exemplify inclusion and exposure to other cultures. Johnny is seen hand in hand with Uncle Remus and is repeatedly mesmerized by his stories. What you purport and believe Disney sanctions is gentrification and homogenization of children's entertainment.
The actress who plays Tempy to whom you refer is the great Hattie McDaniel. She is best known for playing Mammy in 1939's "Gone with the Wind," a role for which she won an Oscar, the first Academy Award handed out to an African American. While true, at one time she was criticized by the NAACP for perpetuating black stereotypes few today would argue that she didn't also portray strong female characters.
To my mind, fear of a potential backlash from perceived Uncle Tomism is unwarranted. The Disney Company CEO, Bob Iger, said that Disney is "…owing to the sensitivity that exists of our culture…" What balderdash! This is a film that needs to be displayed and defended, not shuttled off to the archive only to be viewed by Dave Smith (The Disney Company archivist) in a little screening room! We have as a society so succumbed to political correctness and fear of offending anybody that we are purposefully subverting good stories and brain washing the masses that this is the right thing to do. Shall we next, burn all copies of 'The Grapes of Wrath' for all of Steinbeck's unfavorable depictions of the dustbowl and economic depression?
Not to release Song of the South is censorship…it is a form of withholding of the truth and suppression of film history. Eric asks, "Should it be marketed towards kids? No, not at all." What in heaven's name are we afraid of? What do we fear this picture will teach children? Why should we think for a moment that 'Song of the South' is somehow a non-stop road to depravity and intolerance? In a world where children are exposed to 'murder on television and we allow a growing acceptance of violence, it seems incongruous, and more accurately, hypocritical that we would disallow and discount the significant moral tale that is, "Song of the South."
At its essence this film says to young viewers, "You cain't run away from trouble 'cause dey ain't no place dat fuh" and the reverence of family and trustworthy friends. Add to that the subtext and we are not teaching children intolerance and indifference, but rather kindness, love, and the value of our family supersedes all.