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The Merits of Disney’s Song of the South

Splash Mountain

“You can’t run away from trouble. There ain’t no place that far.”

– Song of the South

These wise words of Uncle Remus are seemingly forgotten by the Walt Disney Company, the company that produced Song of the South but now disowns the film. The film, based on Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus tales, is shunned because of the racial stereotypes and dialects it projects. If one would look past those foibles, they would see the enduring merit of the tales of Brer Rabbit, as told by Uncle Remus.

Originally released in 1946, Song of the South was one of America’s most popular movies of the time. Nevertheless, the stereotypical depictions of blacks within the film made it one of the most controversial films to ever be made, although it did win an Oscar for “Best Song” (“Zip-A-Dee-Do-Da”) (Brash 278).

There was still no lack of protest for the film. At the film’s New York premiere in Times Square, dozens of black and white pickets chanted, ‘We fought for Uncle Sam, not Uncle Tom,’ while the NAACP called for a total boycott of the film, and the National Negro Congress called on black people to ‘run the picture out of the area” (Snead 93). So, people were obviously upset, despite the commercial success of the film.

Walt Disney finally decided to put Song of the South into the depths of the infamous “Disney Vault in 1958 (Dictionary of Literary Biography). However, in would not be the last time.

Sometime after this, the film was released again, only to be “‘permanently’ withdrawn'” in 1970. This statement also proved to be contrary, though, and Song of the South was re-released and re-withdrawn several more times (Sperb 78). No matter how many times Song of the South has been withdrawn from the North American audience, though, it has almost constantly been available in other parts of the world. Several countries have released the film on home video, and it is often broadcast on television in England (Weinman).

When asked in 2006 whether Disney would ever release Song of the South on DVD, Robert Iger, current chairman of the Disney Corporation, said no. He directly stated, “owing to the sensitivity that exists in our culture…we made the decision not to re-release it”. However, this year, Iger seems to be reconsidering. “We’ve decided to take a look at it again because we’ve had numerous requests about bringing it out”, he states (Weinman).

Many people at the time of the release of this film were also unhappy about Harris’ original stories. Song of the South seemed simply to be a reminder of what was offensive in the original Uncle Remus tales. An African-American magazine, called Ebony, made the following editorial statement in 1947:

[The film] is as anti-Negro as the Uncle Remus Stories upon which it was based…James Baskett…is an Uncle Tom Aunt Jemima caricature complete with all the fawning equipment thereof…[Song of the South is] like other films, books and plays that hearken back to the dead era of slavery and portray a chapter in the Negro’s past in a way that tends to ridicule and lower his standing in the community.” (Elkin)

Joel Chandler Harris himself, in regard to his Uncle Remus tales, always seemed shy about reading his stories in public. He also wouldn’t take credit for the works often times (Moore). It seems that, no matter where these tales go or how they are portrayed, they are frowned upon in some way or another. “Uncle Remus is a controversial figure who suggests that blacks lived in extreme poverty, but were nonetheless happy and content alongside their former owners” (Sperb).

In response to this, Disney decided to strip the Brer Rabbit tales of their whimsical narrator, Uncle Remus, and present them without racial stereotype. The result of this was Disneyland’s “Splash Mountain”. This ride takes guests through the story of Brer Rabbit, without ever once mentioning Uncle Remus. This may have caused more problems than it solved.

According to Weinman, “keeping Song of the South out of circulation may have caused Disney even more trouble…legend has arisen that the film is some kind of white-supremacist movie, a suppressed example of Walt Disney’s racism…because they can’t see it, they’ve inflated it into a negative legend on a par with Disney’s support for facism, or his frozen head.” So, because of political correctness, Disney’s Song of the South may be stirring up more controversy than it actually deserves. Sure, there are racial stereotypes in this film, but they are justified and needed to help along the moral implications of the story.

The NAACP claimed in 1946 that Song of the South “perpetuates the impression of ‘an idyllic master-slave relationship’ in the South” (Sperb). However, the NAACP does not have a current official stance regarding the film. This may be because Disney has been active in trying to cover up their offensive tracks with the NAACP.

The Walt Disney Company was one of many sponsors in the NAACP 98th Annual Convention (NAACP). These kinds of accusations mostly come from the fact that Uncle Remus seems to be an old slave who has nothing better to do than to tell stories. Perhaps that’s true.

Harris stated that Uncle Remus was “a human syndicate…of three or four old darkies whom I had known” (Ritterhouse). If this is the case, then Harris was simply saying things the way he saw them, even though his view may have been flawed.

Uncle Remus’ dialect is rather rustic. For example, here is the beginning of one of Uncle Remus’ stories of Brer Rabbit:

One day atter Brer Rabbit fool ‘im wid dat calamus root, Brer Fox went ter wuk en got ‘im some tar, en mix it wid some turkentime, en fix up a contrapshun w’at he call a Tar-Baby, en he tuck dish yer Tar-Baby en he sot ‘er in de big road, en den he lay off in de bushes fer to see what de news wuz gwine ter be (Harris 6).

This sort of dialect can certainly be degrading, but Harris was trying to maintain the authenticity of these tales. Since he heard these tales in a dialect such as this, it was only natural for him to repeat such a dialect in his writing. As such, it is also natural for Disney to repeat this same dialect pattern when making the film.

The controversy is not all about Uncle Remus, though. The characters that Uncle Remus tells about also “speak in a pidgin dialect” (Weinman). These characters can be hard to understand sometimes, but these stereotypes were mild for the 1940’s.

Children who read Harris’ tales also seemed to identify better with Brer Rabbit and the other animals than with uncle Remus himself. Lewis Killian, who was a white Georgian and grew up in the 1920’s, states that “Uncle Remus was simply a wonderful storyteller; his characters and their exploits were of first importance” (Ritterhouse). So, if this is true, Uncle Remus’ stereotypical dialect and mannerisms should not even pose a problem to the general public.

There is one particular story in Song of the South which has enraged many people. This story is about Brer Rabbit and the Tar-Baby. As the story goes, Brer Rabbit is hopping along one day saying, “How d’you do?” to everyone he passes. In return, he gets from everyone a “Fine, how are you?” in response. Everyone, that is, except the Tar-Baby, which is a literal figure made of tar, put in place by Brer Fox to ensnare Brer Rabbit. So, insulted by his lack of response to his greeting, Brer Rabbit starts a fist fight with the Tar-Baby and is soon hopelessly stuck in the tar.

Many critics interpret this story as meaning that all blacks are rude and will not return a “How d’you do?” As Sperb puts it, “The cultural implications of…the rudeness and the danger of the black figure…would not be lost on many” (Sperb). However, it is clear, when one watches the scene objectively, that race had nothing to do with this confrontation.

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The tar was necessary in order to snare Brer Rabbit. Tar just so happens to be black. The only reason Brer Rabbit attacks the Tar-Baby is because he is rude to him, not because he is black.

All in all, Harris’ stories, along with Disney’s adaptation of them, have endured some pretty harsh criticism. W. Fitzhugh Brundage states that these stories provide “crucial ideological ballast for white supremacy by rooting the contemporary racial hierarchy in a historical narrative and in a manner that naturalized it” (Ritterhouse). By causing Uncle Remus and the characters in his stories to speak in a racially stereotypical dialiect, it is supposed that a message is being brought across that blacks needed to remain inferior, even after the Civil War ended.

No matter what critics thought the chosen dialects and stories meant, to Harris it was quite simple. He was trying to give Northerners a clear picture of what it was like to grow up in the South. Of course, his view would differ from anyone else’s view, but that is to be expected.

He was just telling his own perceptions. Many white Southerners sympathized with these stereotypical views of black slaves as they remembered them. Ritterhouse states, “…the emotions white southerners remembered and were imaginatively recreating through Harris’ stories might have been real and powerful even if the blacks who figured in those memories had never shared their sentiments.” So, although it is unlikely that the true “Uncle Remuses” of the world felt the same for their white owners and former owners as Harris’ Remus did, the white children who grew up around someone like Uncle Remus certainly felt affection for him.

The real concern enters when we consider the effect of these stories on the children listening to them. Those white children who grew up around Uncle Remus type characters already had those memories. They were just refreshed by Harris’ stories. Their children, however, only knew of this type of subservience and slavery from these stories. “…these stories not only validated adults’ racial views but reinforced lessons in white supremacy that white southern children also learned from the entire separate and unequal world around them” (Ritterhouse).

Despite the implications that come along with using the specific dialect that Harris and Disney use to tell these stories, this specific dialect is necessary. Brasch states that “American Black English should not be bastardized by professional writers in order to justify not only cheap humor but their own sense of intellectual superiority” (151). On the contrary, this was the way these stories were told when Harris and the other white children of the time heard them, and so they should be recorded that way. Prettying up the language would only insult the black race by implying that the speech of their predecessors was too simple to tell these tales.

Also, the dialect Harris used in telling these stories practically forced parents to read out loud to their children. It is hard to read these stories without speaking aloud, especially for small children. The dialect becomes confusing.

However, when read aloud, the dialect not only brings the story to life, it gives parents and children an excuse to read together. Since these stories are best understood when read or heard out loud, it seems only natural that they should be made into a film like Song of the South. Going along with this argument, one could say that Song of the South is the way these stories were originally meant to be told: on screen and out loud for everyone to hear.

By now, it is apparent that Song of the South has many flaws. These flaws, however, should not stand in the way of audiences today enjoying and learning from the beautiful tales of Brer Rabbit as they were meant to be told: on the screen. The virtues of this film far outweigh the negative influence of the racial stereotypes that are present.

The greatest service releasing Song of the South to DVD in our day and age would grant is that the old folktales of days gone by would be sure to be preserved. Had Harris not recorded these old African tales, many of them may be lost today. We do have access to the stories in print, however, film reaches a much wider audiences, spreading these stories all over the world.

In telling these tales in Song of the South it is also important that the dialect is preserved. “African American characters should have a prominent place in southern literature…their language, as well as their songs and stories, ought to be preserved” (Ritterhouse). This is true of literature, but film is an even better way to preserve dialect and song. Disney’s Song of the South does just that.

For many people of Harris’ time, these stories were the first glimpse that they had of the life of a slave. No matter how sugar-coated Harris’ tales might be, they served the purpose of bringing attention to the former slaves and their lives. Song of the South, as a film, perpetuates this period knowledge even further.

Uncle Remus is the most important part in the telling of these tales. These folktales came from former slaves, therefore, they should be given full credit for their creation. In depicting Uncle Remus as the stereotypical black slave, Harris (and Disney, in turn) are giving credit to all former black slaves who brought these tales to us.

Although James Baskett, the actor who played Uncle Remus in Song of the South, never officially spoke for or against the film, it helped his career greatly. He became the first African American male actor to win an Academy Award. He was given an honorary award in 1948 for “his able and heart-warming characterization of Uncle Remus, friend and story teller to the children of the world, in Walt Disney’s Song of the South” (IMDB).

This was a high point in his career, and might have launched him into even greater success, had he not died the same year the award was given. It is true that he did not attend the premiere of the film, held in Atlanta, because of racial segregation in that area (IMDB).

Many people do not realize that, despite all of the controversy surrounding this film, James Baskett was one of the first live actors that the Walt Disney Company ever hired (Mikkelson). This was a phenomenal breakthrough in the world of animation, not only hire a live actor, but also to have one of those first live actors be African-American.

However, that cannot be looked upon as a shortcoming of the film itself. It simply testifies to the turmoil of the time, especially in the south, when the film was released. Despite this, James Baskett now has the honor of being on a list of only fourteen people for “first-time winners for first films” (Sunday Times).

Paul Cousin, Harris’ biographer, states that Uncle Remus’ stories are “the worthiest and most considerable contribution to the literature of Negro life that had yet been made” (Ritterhouse). Thomas Nelson Page argues that Uncle Remus’ tales should be praised “not for it’s dialect, accurate and entertaining as we find it in the hands of a master of sound…[but for the] true secret of the power and value of Uncle Remus and his ‘Sayings’ lies in the artistic and masterly setting and narration” (Ritterhouse). So, the dialect itself is not what needs to be praised, but the setting and narration that the dialect lends itself to.

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Uncle Remus, although extremely stereotypical in dialect and mannerisms, is depicted as a heroic and good character, one to which children should look for a good example. “Remus is a father figure, a teacher, an upholder of social mores, an antisocial critic, a manipulator, and a trickster by turns” (Dictionary of Literary Biography). In no way is Uncle Remus frowned upon, stereotyped though he may be.

According to Peter Travers, a magazine movie reviewer:

No white character in the film is possessed of anything like this former slave’s principles or sense of self-worth. Uncle Remus does more than just sing and tell tales; he listens and understands. There’s a child in all of us who should not be deprived of the pleasure of his company.

Uncle Remus, through several of his stories, teaches that none of us, regardless of race, is inferior to the other. Harris’ Uncle Remus makes it clear through his stories that blacks have simply been dealt an unlucky hand (in this case, slavery and servitude) (Ritterhouse). They are no less clever or strong than the whites who own and employ them.

If anything else, these tales perpetuate the fact that, because slaves were physically subservient, their minds and imaginations flourished, bringing us the tales of Brer Rabbit. According to an anonymous critic when Harris’ Uncle Remus tales were first released, “the interest of the book is not in its illustrations of slavery, but in its picture of the kind of imagination in which the negro slave most delighted” (Ritterhouse).

Modern audiences should not be deprived of Uncle Remus’ tales. Doing so would deprive us all from the morals and lessons inherent in these tales. Harris’ tales are available in print, but, in general, films reach a much broader audience than books do.

In the movie, Johnny is talked out of doing almost every naughty thing by Uncle Remus telling him a tale of Brer Rabbit. “…for generations black southerners had been using the Brer Rabbit tales at the heart of Harris’s narratives to teach their own children lessons about survival in a decidedly brutal and unjust world…Brer Rabbit proved that the weak could outsmart and overcome the strong” (Ritterhouse). It is only fitting that we should want our children today to learn these same lessons through Song of the South.

It was not Harris’ intention to treat blacks as inferior beings. Harris was rather vocal about his views against racial injustice (Ritterhouse). In 1904 Harris published a series of essays in the Saturday Evening Post in which he denounced lynching, praised economic and educational gains African Americans had made since emancipation, and urged white readers to judge race ‘by its best products, instead of its worst'” (Ritterhouse 18).

Harris’ once said of his compilation of Uncle Remus tales, “…however humorous it may be in effect, its intention is perfectly serious; and, even if it were otherwise, it seems to me that a volume written wholly in dialect must have its solemn, not to say melancholy features” (Dictionary of Literary Biography). When audiences today read Harris’ tales and view Song of the South, they seem to think that the racial stereotypes and dialects employed are meant to be humorous. In reality, Harris composed these stories with the utmost respect, and Walt Disney tried his best to accurately transcribe to the screen what was already on the page.

The Dictionary of Literary Biography admits, “Although the collection is flawed, it introduced Harris’s best-known character, Uncle Remus; his best-know story, that of the tar-baby; his characteristic setting, the benevolent plantation; and the conflict of society versus the individual.” The same can be said of Disney’s Song of the South.

Just like Harris’ collection of stories, it has its flaws, but the virtues overshadow those flaws without a doubt. Racial stereotypes are to be expected when dealing with dated literature and film, but many virtues that were true then are still true today.

It is clear that Walt Disney was the man meant to put Joel Chandler Harris’ collection of stories to film. The two shared the same core beliefs and values system. On Harris’ tombstone, it reads:

I seem to see before me the smiling faces if thousands of children some young and fresh, and some wearing the friendly marks of age, but all children at heart-and not an unfriendly face among them. And while I am trying hard to speak the right word, I seem to hear a voice lifted above the rest saying: You have made some of us happy. And so I feel my heart fluttering and my lips trembling, and I have to bow silently and turn away, and hurry back into the obscurity that fits me best (Brasch 263).

Walt Disney shared these feelings of gratitude towards children whom he made happy. He felt that it was his calling in life to bring out the child in everyone. In this way, Harris and Disney were linked and, therefore, it is likely that no other man than Walt Disney could have brought about Harris’ stories to film with such beauty and accuracy.

Both Harris’ Compilation of tales and Disney’s film received a wide array of praise. Theodore Roosevelt “commended Harris for improving race relations” in 1907 (Dictionary of Literary Biography). As a film, Song of the South was a great financial success.

According to Leonard Maltin, “protest was not widespread among the American public…who flocked to see the film and made it a major Disney money-maker, both in its initial release and on its reissue in 1956″ (Sperb 78). If for no other reason, Disney should re-release Song of the South merely for financial gain. It is well known that the scarcity of a piece will increase its value. Therefore, Song of the South should be a great money-maker (Weinman).

Despite all of the merits of Song of the South, it can be hard to ignore offensive racial stereotypes, especially in our further progressing world. One item that needs to be taken into consideration is the fact that we, as readers, bring our own implications to a book or movie. “Harris’s Uncle Remus stories need to be understood in terms of readership as well as authorship” (Ritterhouse).

If a reader comes to see this film or read these stories without any preconceptions of racial or slavery issues in the early days of our country, he may well think of the black race as inferior to the white race, as it seems to be portrayed in the depictions of Uncle Remus. This can definitely be insulting, especially in our modern culture. However, if the reader or viewer is educated about the issues of slavery and race beforehand, he may use his prior knowledge to look past these implications and glean the proper values and morals from the heartwarming tales of Brer Rabbit, as told by Uncle Remus. Children should be taught beforehand about issues of slavery, if they are to be shown this film.

According to Moore, “…the folk tales of Brer Rabbit were never initially or primarily children’s fare…” As true as this may be, children may learn some valuable lessons by being exposed to these tales at an early age, along with precautions and lessons about race from their parents or guardians. Moore continues, “It may be easy for the literary sophisticate to excuse the subtextual racism embedded in the characterization and structure of Harris’ story formula, and still savor the rich social commentary available in the folk tales. But Remus is to be found on children’s literature bookshelves.” This may be so, but if a child is taught about slavery and racial issues beforehand, he will glean the proper morals from these stories.

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One way to ensure the education of the audience receiving Song of the South, would be to have a disclaimer before the film explaining the attitudes toward race, not only during Harris’ time, but also during Walt Disney’s time (or the time of Song of the South). Disney has tried to secure a famous black actor to do such a disclaimer, but many of them refuse on moral grounds, so this option is not open to them.

Disney claims that they have made the tale of Song of the South available to the modern public through “Splash Mountain”, the ride at Disneyland. Although this ride gives a basic overview of the storyline, it completely undercuts the important parts of the story.

…film critics and scholars perform a disservice to their profession if they only fight to preserve films for purely aesthetic and technical reasons–history and culture (including, especially, the ugly parts) are every bit as important.

With Splash Mountain, Disney effectively pulled the original roots of Song of the South out from under the film. Instead of a richer–if far more problematic–text, Splash Mountain represents a commodified, homogenized version, if any version, of its now distant “Masked” and “perverted” relative. (Sperb)

“Splash Mountain” is simply not good enough to replace Song of the South in the modern cultural mind.

When “Splash Mountain” was opened, a local chapter on the NAACP protested the opening of the ride (IMDB). However, there was no real need for such offense, since the ride took out any and all racial stereotypes and gave us a watered-down, politically correct ride.

Through “Splash Mountain”, Disney leaves out Uncle Remus, the narrator, although the story still follows the tales of Brer Rabbit and friends. This ride as such an effect that it “comes fast, like in a good movie trailer” (Sperb). In addition to this, the Tar-Baby has been replaced by a beehive full of honey, and it is unclear exactly how Brer Rabbit became ensnared in said beehive.

Patricia Turner, a folklorist, states:

Disney’s 20th Century Re-creation of Harris’s frame story is much more heinous than the original…An obviously ill-kept Black child of the same age

What Turner says is true. The black characters in the film seem to want nothing else but to help and serve the white characters. However, this can have its merits, as well.

Song of the South is not offensive to all African-Americans in our community. On IMDB, and African-American user commented on Song of the South and stated the following:

Everyone must remember that this film was released in the 1940’s before the civil rights movement and before “Roots”. Now because of political correctness, we have all but forgotten this classic film, which was one of the first to combine live action and animation. Even though I do agree that this film does show slavery in a positive light you also should look at the fact that it dared to show the friendship between an African-American and a Caucasian, something that would never have even been thought about in those days. (Washington)

This person realized that, although there are racial stereotypes in the film, Song of the South still has many merits, which should not be hidden from the viewing public because of racial sensitivity and “political correctness”.

Sydney Taylor, a student at Southern Virginia University, spoke positively about “Splash Mountain” and Song of the South. Although not African-American herself, Sydney comes from a multi-racial family, with many adopted African-American aunts and uncles. Song of the South and “Splash Mountain” both hold treasured memories within her family.

When asked what her first impressions of Uncle Remus were, Sydney responded that he was just “a nice old man” (Taylor). So, it is obvious that the racial implications within “Splash Mountain” and Song of the South were not bothersome to her or any members of her family.

Also within this same interview, Mrs. Taylor expressed her concern that there is no apparent storyline in “Splash Mountain”. She comments on the fact that, without a narrator, the story just seems like a bunch on random creatures getting into random trouble. None of it seems connected. When asked if the storyline of the ride would be improved were a narrator (such as Uncle Remus) added, she replied that it would be improved.

Racial stereotypes and dialects are definitely present within Disney’s Song of the South. Considered according to today’s standards, these stereotypes can be offensive in the wrong context. Yet, the values of this story far outweigh the negativity of the racial stereotypes within it.

An audience cannot get the full effect of the moral of Uncle Remus’ tales within the context of “Splash Mountain”. In order to combat negativity in racial stereotypes, our society needs to be educated as to modern and ancient racial views. In this way, they can fully understand and enjoy the beautiful morals that come from Song of the South.

In the movie, Uncle Remus himself says:

“I’m just a wore out old man what don’t do nothin’ but tell stories. But, they ain’t never done no harm to nobody. And if they don’t do no good, how come they last so long?” (Song of the South)

This line is absolutely true, if something, like a story, is good in nature, it will last for a very long time, possibly forever. Controversial things are usually run out of town if they are bad enough. Song of the South must have at least some merits for it to have lasted so long and to have so many enduring fans who want it do see the light of day yet again.

Works Cited

Elkin, Frederick. “Censorship and Pressure Groups.” Phylon 21 (1960): 71-80. JSTOR. Southern Virginia University, Buena Vista, VA. 10 Dec. 2007.

“First-time Winners for first films; 75 Years of the Oscars:Part 1.” Sunday Times (London, England) (Feb 9, 2003): 14. Academic OneFile. Gale. Southern Virginia University. 11 Dec. 2007

“James Baskett.” Internet Movie Database. 6 Dec. 2007 http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0059934/.

Mikkelson, David P. “Song of the South.” Snopes. 21 Aug. 2007. 11 Dec. 2007 http://www.snopes.com/disney/films/sots.asp.

Moore, Opal J. “Joel Chandler Harris.” Dictionary of Literary Biography. 1988. Gale. Southern Virginia University, Buena Vista, VA. 20 Oct. 2007.

Ritterhouse, Jennifer. Reading, Intimacy, and the Role of Uncle Remus in White Southern Social Memory.” Journal of Southern History (2003): 538-585.

Snead, James A. White Screens, Black Images. New York: Routledge, 1994. 93.

Sperb, Jason. “Take a Frown, Turn It Upside Down”” Journal of Popular Culture (2005). Gale. Southern Virginia University, Buena Vista, VA.

“Sponsors.” NAACP. 8 Dec. 2007 http://www.naacp.org/events/convention/98th/98thsponsors/index.htm.

“Splash Mountain”. Disneyland. Anaheim, California. 1989. Riden by Courtney Clark several times, 1989-2007.

Stafford, John. Patterns of Meaning in Nights with Uncle Remus. The University of Texas.

Taylor, Sydney. Personal interview. 5 Nov. 2007.

Turner, Patricia A. Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies. New York: Anchor Books, 1994. 114.

Washington, Brian. “Song of the South.” Internet Movie Database. 31 Oct. 2003. 9 Dec. 2007 .

Disney only releases movies to be sold for a limited amount of time. After this, they are withdrawn from the market, making Disney movies a more valuable and rare commodity. This is often seen as a ploy for the company to make more money.

A popular urban legend projects that, upon his death, Walt Disney had his head frozen so as to be able to be brought back to life sometime in the future, as soon as technology permitted. This is, of course, false.