Last night I finally saw Song of the South (hereafter referred to as Song, for short). There’s a lot that can be (and has been) said about this film. What I’d like to focus on today is the question of whether or not Song should be featured on Disney+. Disney has the vast majority of their film library on the streaming service, but they have excluded this particular film due (presumably) to the controversy surrounding it. Is this really the right decision? Let’s talk about it.
Before we head into the discussion, however, there is one supremely important thing to note. I am a straight, white, middle class male. I am about as far removed from the horrors faced by slaves and African Americans as a person can be. I recognize that my perspective on most of the issues related to this movie is inherently skewed. I would absolutely advise you to seek out the opinions, thoughts, and feelings of African Americans in regards to this movie. That said, I hope I can at least offer a tiny bit of insight to you.
What is the movie about?
If you’re unfamiliar with Song, here is what you need to know. It is a feature film which was released by Disney in the 1940s. It is a combination of live action and animation, in the same vein as Mary Poppins. It tells a story of a young white boy named Johnny who moves out to a plantation somewhere in the American South. It is owned by his grandmother. There are several black servants (it’s unclear if they are slaves) on the plantation. One of them is named Uncle Remus. Remus tells the boy stories of a character named Brer Rabbit (which are the animated sequences of the movie). These are meant to be folktales that teach simple lessons to impressionable youth such as our main character. Johnny learns lessons from these tales and applies them into his life.
Is the film any good?
Well, I don’t know how people felt about it at the time of release (beyond the controversy). But I must say that it’s rather dull. It’s a boring movie. A number of films from this Disney era are hard to watch (I saw The Three Caballeros a few days ago and nearly didn’t stay conscious all the way through). The animation is of fine quality when it is present, which is good.
Thankfully, I can say that the music is excellent. Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah! is a marvelous song. How Do You Do? is another charmer. Disney still utilizes these songs in various fashions, and for good reason.
It’s also worth noting that the animated characters are well designed. So well, in fact, that Disney has utilized them as the main thematic elements of Splash Mountain (the primary water ride in Disneyland).
What is the controversy?
In short, the film is racist. I questioned ahead of time if the movie would actually be as racist as people say. Short answer is, yes. It very much is. People much more articulate and qualified than I have explained this in great detail. You are welcome to Google it and you’ll find many things to read on the matter.
I can tell you for certain that the movie is racist against black people. I can demonstrate this very simply. In one of the earliest shots of the movie, Johnny and his parents arrive at the plantation. They are greeted by his grandmother. When the grandmother sees Johnny’s father, she exclaims that it will “be good to have a man in the house again!” While she says this, there is an adult, male, black servant present. Evidently, he is not considered to be a real man. And this is one of the more tame examples from the movie. The film absolutely is racist, trust me on this.
But should it be on Disney+?
That is the great question of the day, isn’t it? Here’s the thing. As we’ve said, the movie is racist. But, it’s an important piece of cinema history. It is a work of art and it does have value. Should it be tossed aside and forgotten? Is there any value in pretending the movie was never made?
When I started the movie, I was expecting to feel it should, in fact, be included in Disney’s streaming service. After all, there are other Disney films on the service that have racist elements (see the crows in Dumbo, for example). I thought that you could put the film on the streaming service, but have it begin with a discussion from 1 or more African Americans who work at Disney. Have them discuss the historical context of the film, and share how the film industry has grown and evolved since then. After all, art imitates life. This film really reflected how some white people viewed African Americans at the time. We can’t pretend that the country was never like this. Remember, segregation was in full force when the movie was released. And it doesn’t help to ignore history. Doomed to repeat, right? So, if Disney could use the film to create a conversation about the state of race in the film industry and society as a whole, it could be beneficial.
While I do think there is some merit to that idea, it would be exceedingly difficult to pull off in a way that was not only harmless, but that actually had any positive impact.
My next thought would be to simply cut the animated portions into short films and put only those on the streaming service. After seeing the film, I think this is a bad idea. There is racism throughout the animated portions as well. From the voice acting and dialog to entire plots (there’s a tar baby in here). It wouldn’t solve anything to snip the animated sequences out of the film and remove what little context they have.
Ultimately, I feel that Song of the South does not belong on Disney+.
So, what should Disney do?
It would be a shame to sweep the film under the rug and pretend it never happened. It won’t improve society’s understanding of racial issues (contemporary or historic). It won’t make life any better for people of color. But it also seems like a bad idea to show the film at all.
I think there’s a better option. If I ran the Disney Corporation, here is what I would do.
I would bring together a large group of African American talents. I would have researchers, writers, song writers, artists, animators, voice actors, directors, and more. All African American. I would ask them to identify a series of African American folktales throughout history. This team would transform these folktales into a series of animated short films (half hour or less), at least one of which would incorporate Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah! Disney would then release the entire series on Disney+. There would also be special features on the history and making of this series. It would include real conversations about race in America, the world, and the film industry. The series and the special features would exist purely to honor and celebrate the people, history, and culture of African Americans.
If someone from Disney reads this, please consider this idea. And don’t hire me, or any other white person, to make it happen. Hire some brilliant African Americans and give them the support and resources they need to tell these stories. After this show is over, keep them on the payroll and have them make further films and television series that are entirely original!