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Old Ass Movies: The Delightful Racism of ‘Song of the South’

By  · Published on September 20th, 2009

Every week, Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:

Walt Disney’s Song of the South (1946)

Last night I got into a discussion with fellow Reject Brian Salisbury about how having a character with a southern accent in a movie puts you at an inherent disadvantage. Even if the accent is done well, it still seems cartoonish and silly. For the record, Brian disagrees, which should lead to a duel of epic proportions or at least a discussion in cultural sensitivity, but ultimately the Makers Mark-fueled verbal fisticuffs made me think about a classic film that gets almost no recognition.

That’s because Song of the South isn’t a great movie.

Normally I’d be selling you on how an ancient movie is still enjoyable today or that a modern audience can still be moved by pictures made over half a century ago, but I’m not so sure Song of the South really deserves all that much praise for its own artistic merit. Sure, it’s become a cultural touchstone. It was the first true live-action film created by Disney, it shared a group of stories with a new generation, it launched an amusement park ride where you sit in a plastic log and splash water over people standing on a nearby bridge. This triumph cannot be ignored.

But still, the movie itself isn’t all that moving or impressive. It’s not bad by any means – it’s a strange sort of yarn about a young boy named Johnny who is visiting his grandmother’s plantation during a period of marital strife between his parents. After running away, he meets Uncle Remus, the kindly old storyteller that can weave a morality tale out of any situation. Those stories involve the cunning Br’er (Brother) Rabbit, the ruthlessly hungry Br’er Fox, and the functionally retarded Br’er Bear. The latter villains continually try to eat the former, but he has to use his brain to get out of trouble.

Remus is basically a slave incarnation of Aesop with his fables or Jean de La Fontaine with his poems written in that impossible gibberish language that some call “French.” The most famous of those stories is one of Br’er Fox’s ingenious use of a human-shaped bit of tar to trap Br’er Rabbit in a literal sticky situation. Br’er Rabbit uses reverse psychology to get out of it, and the little children learn that lying to bullies is totally fine. Strangely, there’s no story about Br’er Rabbit’s parents getting a divorce and him having to deal with it.

However, there are only three true morality stories in the entire film. The bulk of the movie involves Johnny’s friendships on the farm, his run-ins with the two bullies down the road and his mother’s growing frustration with Uncle Remus and his nonsense tales.

The film is set shortly after the end of the Civil War, but the stereotypes are still alive and well in the Deep South that we’re singing about. Perhaps the main problem is that the source material comes from Joel Chandler Harris – a well-known apologist for slavery and a controversial figure that either shared black culture with the world or stole it to gain his own fame depending on how you look at it. Perhaps that’s the issue, but the far more obvious one is that the view of black relations during the time is a fantasy land which displays the former slaves happily singing and laughing and smiling their days on the farm away. It gives a ridiculously idyllic look at servitude-post-slavery while saddling all of the black characters with laughable dialects. Uncle Remus himself is a patronizing portrayal of an Uncle Tom figure that would make Michael Bay’s Skids and Mudflap blush, and once you hear the accents of Br’er Rabbit and his animated pals, you’ll probably be left wide-eyed and slack-jawed. Coincidentally, it’s difficult to sing “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” when you’re slack-jawed. Trust me. I’ve tried.

So why watch it? Because it’s not without elements to celebrate and because it holds a special place in history. It’s a lens into the past of race relations that we’d do well not to forget. Plus, it’s controversial because it creates differing opinions – there are many who feel that the cartoon is harmless and not at all racist. Still others feel that the stereotypes used within it aren’t necessarily harmless. As a cultural landmark, it’s important to see for yourself which side you fall on.

You also might simply want to be aware of the context of singing the Academy Award-winning “Plenty of sunshine coming my way!/Zip-a-dee-doo-dah! Zip-a-dee-yay!” while riding Splash Mountain at Disneyland.

Song of the South is an average film that Walt Disney seemed obsessed with creating. The technological advance with blending animation and live-action was a turning point, and Disney was finally able to bring the Uncle Remus character to life in the only way he saw fit: as a real life actor, not as a drawing. If you’re looking for a Disney film from before 1960, there are many superior choices, but none that have the outer cultural importance or impact of this film. In fact, Disney has never released the full movie on video for the United States although several other countries have their PAL encoded versions ready to be purchased for your all-region DVD player. You can also see the entire film on Youtube if you don’t mind seeing it in ten minute segments.

There may be more manifest reason to watch the film (instead of just enjoying it as a movie), but it still stands as a strange entry into a gray area in our country’s history, a time when we were still struggling to understand each other on the most basic of levels, a time almost a century beyond slavery but still decades before the Civil Rights movement. If nothing else, it’s interesting to see what one of the most beloved film companies of all time considered completely acceptable entertainment for the time while questioning whether we can find it actual or satisfactual.

My, oh my, what a wonderful day.

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