"THE COMING AND PASSING OF 'SONG OF THE SOUTH' "
by David M. Korn
October 4, 2005 - Film Threat.com


In 1986, moviegoers were treated to a trailer for a Disney film re-release. The familiar, enthusiastic voice over that accompanied all Disney trailers, once again welcomed audiences of all ages back to an American classic. The bouncy melody of the song “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” filled the theater, and the huge, old-fashioned letters of the film’s title overwhelmed the screen:

“Song of the South” in brilliant Technicolor. There were ads in all major newspapers and magazines, as well as on television. No editorials or commentaries appeared, and Disney received no direct criticism. No one was offended or outraged. Brief mentions in People Magazine and Newsweek were typical of the response. The film’s reputed racist content was dismissed as misguided, noting that James Baskett’s dignified and heartfelt portrayal of Uncle Remus undermined any undercurrent of racism. The article in Newsweek merely suggested that parents be prepared to answer childrens’ questions concerning the period of history depicted in the film, informing them that it simply isn’t realistic, nor is it meant to be. After a three-week run, a bit short for Disney re-releases, but still quite successful, the film went back into the vault for another seven or eight years.

Beginning with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” its first animated feature, Disney was in the habit of re-releasing its animated classics about every seven years. This was so every American child would be able to experience each one in a theater, as if it were a brand new film. The practice did not change with the advent of television in the 1950's, or even home video in the 1980's. There was one exception, however, “Song of the South,” which would never be released to the American public in any form ever again. Except for a Japanese laser disc and a brief VHS release in Britain, “Song of the South” has virtually ceased to exist. Routine re-releases in 1972 and 1980 were lucrative and met with no resistance. But when its turn came up again in 1996, coinciding with its fiftieth anniversary, the film was nowhere to be seen. It had, in fact, been indefinitely pulled from distribution. The situation remains unchanged to this day. Although there’s no such thing as an officially banned film in the United States, “Song of the South” still cannot be seen, as if it never existed at all, a perception that Disney wants to encourage.

Unfortunately, the company doesn’t admit to this cowardly evasion of responsibility. It just wants “Song of the South” to go away. At a 1998 celebration of Disney animation at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, an official archivist and spokesman for its animation library responded to a question concerning the status of “Song of the South” by avoiding eye-contact and mumbling “Well, I don’t know,” before wandering off. The film has become unmentionable, like some horrible war crime that no one wants to acknowledge. This is an awful lot of consternation over what is nothing more than an innocuous family entertainment. In fact, millions of people grew up with “Song of the South.” It was seen over and over, at least every decade or so, just like “Snow White,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Winnie the Pooh,” and a hundred Bugs Bunny cartoons.

So what changed?

One is a culture of apology, in which past wrongs too great to be easily ameliorated in any meaningful way are instead dealt with through contrition and deference. In essence, we can’t change the past, but we can be sensitive and understanding. We can’t immediately improve the circumstances of millions affected by racism, poverty, sexism, etc. But we can be sorry. That these apologies are almost invariably hollow, and little more than pyrrhic victories, if not actually insults, seems not to matter. If an emotional pound of flesh is demanded, it can be easily given, especially when it comes to the ephemeral embarras-sments of popular culture.

The question, then, becomes, Does “Song of the South” require any sort of apology? It seems ridiculous to wring hands over this trivial, and even forgettable, example of family entertainment. We can easily accuse the film of being hokey and sentimental, but it is otherwise without consequence. Critics of the film, and of others of the period, will no doubt also condemn it for its sugar-coated view of slavery, an idyllic southern fantasy land where happy slaves sing spirituals and there’s no pain or oppression. It fails to deal with the true reality of slavery, a grave sin of omission. But the same can certainly be said of “Gone with the Wind,” a recognized classic that has never been banned or restricted, and has been available on television and cassette and DVD since the inception of home video. It also received a full Technicolor restoration and re-release in first run theaters. Obviously, MGM had no qualms about this project and the attention it garnered. Just the opposite, in fact. The film has always been, and remains, one of the studio’s crowning achievements and it has exploited it at every opportunity. There were no objections or public outcries. If no one objects to GWTW, to which it’s often referred, then SOTS, as website fans call it, is hardly worth mentioning.

Conversely, if there is a worthy target for the cultural crusaders of the black community, it should really be the utterly indefensible “Birth of a Nation.” No affectionate nickname for that one. Although film critics are quick to emphasize the film’s triumph as a landmark of epic storytelling and cinema-graphic composition, they’re equally quick to point out that its portrayal of blacks at the time of Reconstruction is so laughable that it virtually destroys the film’s value as drama. One shot of all those leering caricatures, without exception white actors in blackface, is enough to condemn it as the embarrassing joke that it is. One cannot take it seriously as anything but a technical exercise. This is not merely the best candidate for the vitriolic contempt of critics and scholars, it’s the only one. There is no other film that compares in this regard. That we can take what we need from GWTW, while soberly rejecting the rest, rather than denouncing and banning the film entirely, makes the disappearance of SOTS that much more absurd and baffling.

Of course, since the explosion of identity politics and the so-called culture wars, some would have you believe differently.

The notion is that just about every film but those made by black directors has some outrageous racist component, as if it’s a natural function of non-black filmmaking. This is, in a word, nonsense. In fact, at the time of this country’s most repressively racist, the 1950's, when the civil rights movement was barely a flicker on the horizon, Hollywood films reflected an astonishing open-mindedness. This, ironically, is actually the aforementioned fantasy land. Despite the cruel racial reality of daily American life, with segregation and repression at their heights, Hollywood seemed to go out of its way to promote a vision of tolerance and self-examination. This is not a reference to the socially conscious high profile racial dramas of the previous decade, such as “Gentlemen’s Agreement” (1947), “Crossfire” (1947) and “Pinky” (1949), or even that quintessential 1950's racial tearjerker and camp classic “Imitation of Life.”

Of particular interest here is the long list of standard issue films in which the story is not specifically racial, but contains a very clear racially progressive aspect. There are numerous films such as “The Well” (1950), in which a young black girl disappears in a small town, igniting a race riot, or “Kings Go Forth” (1958), a World War II drama in which Frank Sinatra condemns Tony Curtis for dumping a young French girl after he discovers that she’s half black. There’s also the astonishing “Lost Boundaries” (1949), in which Mel Ferrer plays a light-skinned black doctor who passes as white so he can get a job in a small all-white town. Inevitably, the townspeople find out he’s really black. Although they feel betrayed at first, they decide that it doesn’t matter and all is well. In “Till the End of Time” (1946), three World War II veterans are approached by white supremacists in a bar and, rather than join up, beat them up in a brawl. Just before the fight, they exchange sympathetic looks with a black veteran who’s still in uniform. In “No Way Out” (1950), Richard Widmark is a virulent racist criminal who won’t allow doctor Sidney Poitier to operate on him. “Man in the Shadow” (1957) is a particularly potent dose of smalltown real-ism. Although an updated knock-off of the classic, and far superior, “High Noon,” with Jeff Chandler in the Gary Cooper role, the film manages to tackle racism, fear of miscegenation, mob justice and McCarthyism, all in a snappy eighty-two minutes. These are just a few examples, but the list is virtually endless. Watch enough old movies, and the trend becomes not only apparent, but overwhelming.

You will not, however, find even one example of its opposite. Aside from the aforementioned “Birth of a Nation,” there are simply no films that promote racism, directly or otherwise. Movies have always compensated for our shortcomings in real life, in America and just about everywhere else. In India and Japan, for example, movies have always been redress for the subservient roles of women in those cultures. The women in Bollywood musicals are always strong and respected, the pillars of the community. In Japanese horror movies, stories often revolve around a female ghost, correcting her life’s injustices after death.

Further, cultural warriors and academics eager to demonstrate their left wing street cred cite westerns as a particu-larly egregious example of the legacy of American racism and sexism. Now it’s true that there are almost no black characters in westerns, even in subservient roles, when about a quarter of all cowboys were black. The Old West was full of Chinese, and there are almost none of them either. Conspicuous omissions, to be sure. But there are a lot of Mexicans and Indians. The current campus opinion is that virtually all westerns denigrate and disparage Indians, and the Mexicans are either props or villains. The fact is, most westerns are not even about Indians in any substantial capacity. They’re about cowboys and ranchers. The heroes are cowboys and so are the villains. The classic western climaxes in a shootout between the weary and reluctant hero and some violent, amoral gunfighter he was forced to chase down. Indians are usually irrelevant, and Mexicans tend to represent a more settled and thoughtful lifestyle, in contrast to that of the wandering, unsatisfied Americans still searching the frontier for meaning.

Every once in a while, there’s a wagon train attacked by Indians, or an Indian raid on an encampment of settlers. But the film’s narrative is always such that this is an exceptional occurrence. Most Indians in films co-exist with whites, and if not exactly friendly, are not hostile either. More significantly, there’s almost always an undercurrent of deference to the Indian population. Hostile acts perpetrated by soldiers and cowboys are opportunistically blamed on Indians. The hero always finds out the truth and gets the real villains. The hero is also usually familiar with the different tribes and has a rudimentary knowledge of their language. The implication is that the Indians are a lot more civilized and complicated than the settlers give them credit for, and might actually teach them something. Even John Wayne, that enduring symbol of ultra-patriotism and xenophobia, invariably comes off as a UN ambassador in his westerns. He’s always comfortable with Indians, having a relationship with a chief or warrior of mutual understanding and respect. With the exception of “The Searchers (1956),” you will not see John Wayne hating or killing or even insulting Indians as a group.

Hollywood didn’t have to go out of its way here, either. This is standard western storytelling. Among the thousands of westerns made by Hollywood since the early days of silent films, there were almost none about the genocidal policies of the United States government toward American Indians until “Cheyenne Autumn” came along in 1964. And this film, as did others in subsequent years, took the side of the Indians. When “Dances with Wolves” hit screens in 1992, the reaction was one of astonishment, as if a great injustice had finally been corrected. Although a great western, and the first in almost twenty years to have substantial commercial and critical success, “Dances with Wolves” was hardly unique in its sympathy toward Native Americans. It’s nearly im-possible, in fact, not to have sympathy for them, in either a dramatic context or otherwise. This is why the issue of their abuse, neglect and genocide has been mostly avoided. The cynical view is that Hollywood is run by liberals who promote liberal po-sitions in their stories. But the truth is simply more prac-tical. Movies are a vicarious art form, and Americans like to imagine themselves as fair and honest. Filmmakers are not going to portray the west honestly because the result would be too unpleasant. No one wants to identify with a movie hero who kills Indians and abuses women. Indeed, if real cowboys had been as respectful of Indians, Mexicans and women in real life, it would have been a place of extreme sophistication and civilization, rather than one of violence and lawlessness. It’s also much more interesting, and much more dramatic, to employ Indian characters that have an equal, if distant and perhaps superior, relationship to the cowboys. Let’s face it, in the movies, Indians are just plain cool. Much cooler than the stereotypical scummy, toothless cowboy that doesn’t like them and wants to kill them indiscriminately. He’s usually the same guy who tries to rape the heroine, only to be ignominiously gunned down before the finale.

The remaining issue is that sin of omission. By marginalizing or neglecting blacks in film after film, cinema as an in-stitution condemns them to second class status and reinforces racism in the public realm. Do this for sixty to seventy years and the effects are hard to undo. No matter how many films, big or small, have a humanitarian “nod” to a minor black character, it’s a drop in the ocean. In sum, most films are not about blacks and most major characters are not black. The message is undeniably clear. However, what interprets and qualifies that message is not the movies themselves, but the context of the larger society in which they’re made.

In other words, there’s no such thing as corrective enter-tainment. If there were, all we’d have to do to address a social problem is make the right movie about it. Hardcore white supremacists, for example, do not hold their views because of a given movie or series of movies they’ve seen. And conversely, their opinion can’t be altered by films containing wholesome, humanitarian portrayals. Indeed, the effect may in fact be just the opposite. Films during the glory days of Hollywood were routinely altered for southern audiences, so not to offend them. Dance numbers in musicals where the white heroine was in the same frame as a featured black performer, thereby implying equality or intimacy, were always avoided. They were shot in such a way to allow the offending scene to be completely excised without creating dramatic confusion, and a less racially inflammatory scene could be substituted in prints going to southern theaters. In the 1930's, studio heads even went so far as to sanitize films before sending them to Germany and its occupied territories. The area constituted a large financial return, and characters or stories that seemed “too Jewish” were muted or avoided, and anything even remotely interracial was out of the question. The practice was stopped when Germany invaded Poland, and trade as a whole was restricted to Nazi Germany. This is all the more amazing con-sidering that the heads of most of the major Hollywood studios were Jewish immigrants.

Movies and their content are prominent, but essentially benign. They make an easy target for the hypercritical. At the time of SOTS, movies were only about fifty years old. But human prejudice is some ten thousand years old, and the effects of superficial entertainment can only wear off an hour or so after the closing credits. And this is not a bad thing. If it’s discomforting to know that no amount of well-intentioned humanita-rian propaganda will sway the hateful, then it has to be equally reassuring that no amount of its counterpart will cause the rest of us to re-evaluate our overall tolerance. We can view “Triumph of the Will” or “The Eternal Jew” a thousand times, and like “Birth of a Nation,” we won’t entertain their ridiculous, megalo-maniacal fascism for an instant.

So the question remains, why “Song of the South,” of all targets? A single word is the simple answer here: Disney. The Walt Disney Company is a sitting duck if ever there were one. It manicures its public image as fiercely as Madonna. It desperately fears losing its much perfected reputation as a wholesome, family-oriented producer of uplifting, life-affirming entertain-ment. It takes every criticism and threat to heart, unwilling to be perceived as indifferent to the opinions of every dissatisfied customer, no matter how irrational and indefensible the claim.

When there’s an objection to something in one of its films, a spokesman for the company always apologizes and promises to review the problem. The company always takes it on the chin. Its stance is that it’s always at fault. It never stands up for its product or simply dismisses a criticism out of hand. And this, unfortunately, is not just lip service. To eliminate the problem at the source, it has altered scenes and characters. During the production of “The Lion King,” creators went out of their way to Africanize the story elements, not for the sake of dramatic ef-fectiveness, but to avoid negative attention. It seems to care less about artistic integrity than public relations. But the company can’t win, just because of who it is. When “Aladdin” came out, it was attacked by spokesmen for the “Arab community,” who objected to its negative Arab stereotypes. Once again, Disney apologized. No one seemed to notice that, being a cartoon, yes, the characters tend toward exaggeration. But no more than in any other animated feature. Should white southerners be offended by Foghorn Leghorn? Nor, for that matter, were they negative in any way. But Disney refuses to condemn this as the narcissistic opportunism that it obviously is. The company takes it seriously because it seems genuinely disturbed by the possibility that it’s the cause of anything but happiness and devotion. In most cases, the company just wants to avoid trouble. This is what the SOTS ban is all about.

The irony is, of course, that the film has been unfairly targeted and become a sacrificial lamb in the so-called culture wars. It’s typical of the proponents of identity politics and cultural victimology to pick the most absurd example of its arguments. In fact, there’s nothing more damning to the very concept of this school of thought than the fact that “Song of the South” has been so extensively attacked and reviled, becoming such a public embarrassment that its creators will barely speak its name.

To simply ignore all this nonsense and look at the actual film objectively is to discover quite a different animal. This is something that nobody has actually done since the controversy began. Especially, you cab bet, its harshest critics. You’d think they’d at least have the brains to pick a better example of their disdain. But they don’t, because they’re not really interested in “Song of the South.” They’re interested in the cheap psychological thrill of the petty outrage that always goes with being offended. They don’t seem to notice how embarrassing it is to essentially admit that their lives are somehow compromised by a ninety minute family entertainment, a third of which is a car-toon that millions of people routinely watched for forty years without incident.

But this could be just one reactionary opinion. Perhaps the best way to proceed is with a fully objective and detailed examination of the film itself. For those who haven’t seen it, which, unbelievably, is most people at this point, I’ll recount the entire story and its characters and refrain from analyzing them, to avoid tainting their simple descriptions.

“Song of the South” begins with a young boy, Johnny, in a horse drawn carriage with his parents, going to his grandmother’s plantation in rural Georgia. Johnny’s parents explain that they’re just visiting. But there’s a reference to some articles, written by Johnny’s father, that have stirred up some unpleasantness back in Atlanta. Just before they arrive, Johnny’s father talks about growing up and listening to the stories of Uncle Remus, whom Johnny is eager to meet. Also in the carriage is the family’s maid, Aunt Tempy, played by the indomitable Hattie McDaniel, known mostly for her Academy Award winning role as Mamie in “Gone with the Wind.”

When they get to the plantation, Johnny is introduced to Toby, a young black boy his own age. At this point, the happy mood is broken by the father’s admission that he’s going straight back to Atlanta. Johnny is distraught, and cries that he’s never left him and his mother. His father explains that he must go back, but the boy whines that he won’t stay if his father leaves. The man tells his son that he has to stay to take care of his mother and grandmother, and then re-boards the carriage and leaves. Night falls and Johnny runs away, presumably to make his way back to Atlanta. He comes across Uncle Remus, played James Baskett, who won a special Academy Award for his role. Uncle Remus is sitting in a clearing telling stories about Brer Rabbit, surrounded by men, women and children, presumably the plantation’s slaves.

Uncle Remus realizes that the boy is running away, and says he’ll go with him. He asks Johnny if he’s brought any food, since it’s such a long trip. When the boy admits that he hasn’t, Remus takes him to his cabin and feeds him. Now it’s too late, he says, to start the trip. Remus suggests that the boy’s vow to never come back to the plantation reminds him of Brer Rabbit’s own vow to leave his briar patch. Johnny begs Remus to tell him the story, upon which the film’s setting becomes animated, with a live action Uncle Remus singing “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” one of the most famous songs in the Disney repertoire, surrounded by a variety of animated forest creatures. Remus then introduces and narrates the first animated segment in the film. Brer Rabbit attempts to run away, so he no longer has to put up with Brer Fox. No sooner is he on his way, also singing “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” when he finds himself caught in one of Brer Fox’s snares. While Brer Fox sharpens up his ax and tears down from his lair, Brer Rabbit tries to convince the not-too-bright Brer Bear to free him from the snare. When Brer Fox reaches the snare, he’s amazed to find Brer Bear caught instead. While fox and bear have it out, the rabbit high tails it back to his house and shuts the door.

The first evening ends when Toby bursts into Remus’s cabin and announces that both Johnny’s mother and grandmother are desperately looking for him. Remus walks Johnny back to the big house, and endures a bit of scolding as to why he kept him up so late telling stories. After Johnny’s mother hauls him into the house, Uncle Remus suggests to grandma that Johnny needs his father. She agrees, but adds that when she wants his advice, she’ll ask for it. Remus asks her if she’s mad at him. She dismisses the very idea and tells him of course not, adding that she’s just a stubborn old woman set in her ways. All is well so Remus goes home.

The next morning begins in Johnny’s bedroom, with Toby pouring a bowl of fresh water for him and introducing him to his pet bullfrog. Miss Sally, Johnny’s mother, appears and tells him to put on a suit, because company is coming. The boy protests that he and Toby were supposed to go frog hunting. The next scene finds Johnny in the suit, whose white britches and lace collar make him look like Little Lord Fauntleroy, sitting outside with Toby. Nevertheless, off they go to hunt frogs. On the way, they pass a broken down cabin where the poor white Faver brothers, about Johnny’s age, are playing with a litter of puppies. A young girl named Ginny, presumably their sister, is also pre-sent. She’s noticeably different than the brothers in her clean appearance and nice manners. The boys make fun of Johnny’s suit, calling him a “little girl.” He runs off and Ginny follows him. He gives her the lace collar and she gives him one of the pups, a runt she took away from the two boys, who were going to drown it. When Uncle Remus sees him with the dog, he asks Johnny what his mother’s going to say about it, and tells him to take it back to the Faver brothers because she’ll never let him keep it. Then Remus softens up and agrees to take care of the dog for him.

The next scene opens with a procession of slaves, tools in hand, singing on their way to work. When the Faver brothers spot Uncle Remus with Johnny’s puppy, they demand that he give it back. Remus threatens them with a beating if he hears anymore about the dog. Ginny reassures Johnny that if she gave him the puppy, then it’s his, not theirs, and her mother will back her up on the matter. This confrontation prompts the next animated sequence with Brer Rabbit, and Uncle Remus leads Johnny and Toby into his cabin to recount the story.

Once again, Brer Fox is determined to catch his arch enemy.

He creates the Tar Baby, probably the most enduring reference from both the film and the original stories by Joel Chandler Harris. It’s simply a dummy made from boiled tar, that he puts a hat and clothes on and leaves in the middle of the road. Brer Rabbit happens along and tries to introduce himself to the tar baby, who, naturally, doesn’t respond. After an increasingly heated exchange in which Brer Rabbit is determined to get some acknowledgment from the figure, he assaults it, and is soon trapped in a cocoon of sticky tar. Brer Fox jumps from his hiding place. Now he finally has the rabbit where he wants him. He makes a bonfire and is about to cook him, but Brer Rabbit talks his way out of the predicament with reverse psychology. He convinces Brer Fox that the last thing he wants is to be thrown into the briar patch, which of course is exactly what the fox does to him. Having grown up in the patch, he avoids its needle sharp briars and is free again.

Johnny and Toby subsequently meet the Faver brothers on the road. They threaten to tell Johnny’s mother and grandmother about the dog, which they want back. Johnny employs the same logic from the story and tricks them into telling their own mother instead. She beats them and chases them out of the house, scolding them that the dog is no longer theirs. They flee from the rundown shack rubbing their sore backsides, sorry they ever mentioned it.

The next scene shows Hattie McDaniel puttering around the kitchen, singing and baking. The song is not a spiritual, but a witty blues with a certain level of innuendo. “You’ll a-come knockin’ at my door for my cookin’,” etc. Uncle Remus appears and she chastises him for only showing up on baking day. He helps himself to some pie, but is interrupted by the Faver brothers, who appear on the doorstep demanding to see Miss Sally.

Remus tells them to go away and not bother anyone about that dog again. But she appears and is informed that Remus has been hiding the dog for Johnny. They also tell her how Johnny tricked them into getting whipped. Remus explains that this was due to his excitement over the Brer Rabbit story he’d just been told. Miss Sally tells Remus to give the dog back, and, concerned by the influence of the stories, informs Remus that he’s not to tell Johnny anymore stories of Brer Rabbit. He apologizes and agrees, but goes off clearly dejected.

When Johnny finds out that Remus gave away the dog, he cries and accuses Uncle Remus of not caring about anything. Remus tells him that there was nothing he could do, but Johnny storms off. Miss Sally makes it up to him by throwing him a big birthday party. He runs off to get Ginny, who’s been all dressed up by her mother. Her brothers follow her and Johnny, and their taunting results in Ginny being pushed into the mud and Johnny getting into a knockdown fight with one of the boys. Uncle Remus comes along and breaks up the fight and chases the boys off. This initiates the last Brer Rabbit story and animated sequence, about the laughing place. Brer Fox is about to roast the rabbit once again, but he and Brer Bear are tricked into taking a trip to the non-existent “laughing place.” Brer Rabbit uses their gullibility and curiosity to extricate himself from their clutches once more.

When Miss Sally finds out, she tells Uncle Remus that he must keep away from Johnny entirely. Sad and rejected, he packs up his belongings and leaves the plantation. Johnny finds out and tries to run after him. He takes a shortcut through a bull-pen and is run down by the bull. Lying delirious in bed in the big house, Remus visits and tells him that the real laughing place is at home, where Brer Rabbit belongs, surrounded by everyone who loves him. Still unconscious, Johnny places his small hand in Uncle Remus’s and wakes up. His father has returned and promises that he’s there to stay. The final scene shows Johnny, Ginny, Toby, led by the dog, skipping through the woods singing “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.” An animated Brer Rabbit appears and joins them, along with an animated bluebird, some butterflies and a few other creatures from the forest. Followed by Uncle Remus, they all sing their way over the horizon and the film ends with a chorus of voices adding the last few notes of the song.

This is a scene-by-scene account of “Song of the South.” Nothing has been left out except two brief transitional scenes in which the plantation’s slaves are shown singing. The only other significant moment occurs before Uncle Remus leaves the bedroom in the penultimate scene. He confides to Johnny’s grandmother that, quoting a line from “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” “everything is satisfactual.” That’s it. Simplistic, hokey and sentimental, yes. But hardly offensive or objectionable in any way. The main character is not Johnny of course, but Uncle Remus. And he is not, as some would contend, a servile slave or Uncle Tom, bowing and scraping at every turn. There’s barely a discernible “Yes ma’am” in his dialogue, and none of the black characters address anyone with the usual excessively subordinate terminology assoc-iated with slavery or its era. For good or ill, there’s little historical authenticity of any measure to be found in “Song of the South.”

But then, the place hardly seems like a real plantation and the black characters bear little resemblance to slaves, even as they’re otherwise portrayed in movies of the period. Essentially, “Song of the South” is just too kindhearted. When Uncle Remus feels unwanted, he just packs up and walks off the plantation as if he’s free to do what he wants. Even the singing style of the slaves bears no resemblance to that of spirituals or traditional work songs. There’s also a conspicuous lack of a white foreman and slave drivers. Indeed, there’s no apparent authority anywhere in the film, and Johnny’s grandmother seems to be running a nice country house, not an active cotton plantation. Even if one assumes that the story takes place after the Civil War, and that the blacks are sharecroppers, the situation is pretty benign. There have always been accusations that this is equally problematic, that a rosy picture of white masters and black servants is being depicted. Picketers at the time of the film’s initial postWorld War II release cried “That we fought for Uncle Sam, not Uncle Tom.” But this point of view ignores the utter artificiality of the scenario on every level. The relationships are too personal for such an interpretation, and actually yield to a few subversive and noteworthy instances of social commentary throughout the film.

When Miss Sally scolds Uncle Remus, she realizes that she’s gone too far and clearly regrets it. She appears to be about to apologize, but stops herself. There’s also the matter of invit-ing Ginny to Johnny’s birthday party. Miss Sally tries to dissuade Johnny. The implication is that, being from a family of sharecroppers, she doesn’t really belong. It’s an interesting comment on class differences, of which Johnny has no conception.

The mention by Johnny’s father in the carriage at the beginning of the film is also fraught with implication. The reference to the trouble from the newspaper articles is ominous, and it’s hard not to assume that Johnny’s father is some kind of liberal reformer. Being a time prior to the Civil War, it’s equally hard to imagine exactly what he’s interested in reforming, but reality is less of an issue than how the characters are perceived. Undeniably, “Song of the South” is no more about slavery or the real antebellum south than 50's sci-fi is about science and tech-nology. The film seems to take place, as do so many from this period, in a pristine storybook fairyland. The brilliant Technicolor is part of this, as well as the sets themselves. Every-thing is too perfect, and the exteriors don’t even appear to be taking place outside. Although Uncle Remus and the Hattie McDaniel character do speak in a typical southern black English, it’s substantially muted, and when Remus sings, he employs a perfect, almost operatic elocution. There’s nothing indicating that they, or anyone else, are actual slaves. They appear to be merely servants. Their songs are also inauthentic, sounding like those of the typical Hollywood musical of the time, which of course they are. As a Disney spokesman said publicly at the time of the 1986 re-release, “It’s not an authentic portrayal of any-thing.” On the other hand, for a glimpse of some truly objec-tionable caricatures, look at the gestures or mannerisms of, say, Stepin Fetchit or Amos ‘n Andy, all of whom, by the way, have been well-represented by appearances on television and home video since their inception.

If the film has any villains, it’s the Faver boys, who are presented as white trash, complete with tattered clothes and no shoes. The drama of virtually every scene in which they appear is constructed to be at their expense, and they’re the only totally unsympathetic characters in the story. Johnny is no prize either, but much of that is due to the heightened, artificial acting style of child actors of the time. It’s Uncle Remus we care about and identify with, for he’s the boy’s surrogate father, protector and mentor. Once again, one can complain of the innocent, revisionist nature of the film and its much-loved literary source. But black critics have often complained equally about serious academic endeavors in which slavery was depicted realistically. A proposed Smithsonian exhibit several years ago on the subject was protested on the basis that this was not the “image” that blacks wanted to see of themselves. A current project to create a museum of African-American history has also been conflicted by the question of how to depict slavery. However, a few years ago, a small yet horrifyingly brutal photo exhibit on lynching made its way around the country and was enthusiastically well-attended by huge crowds of both races, precisely because it was so soberingly honest.

So, fortunately, the truth will come out. Eventually.

There’s an implication that these so-called negative images or stereotypes convey some kind of message about the subordinate nature of blacks, as if the intent is advocacy instead of drama.

This is an absurd concept, which forms most of the bases for these kinds of cultural battles. Thus, phrases such as “rein-forcing stereotypes” and “negative images” are flogged to the point of knee-jerk self-parody. If every character in a target film like “Song of the South” reinforces a stereotype and every scene is full of negative images, then the concept ceases to mean anything, if it ever did in the first place. There’s also a convenient failure to point out that the white characters are just as stereotypical as the black characters. It’s so common to hear how instructive movies are that to oppose this impression is to appear to stick one’s head in the sand.

But what of stereotypes? The very word is now synonymous with outraged condemnation. This is a serious problem. All one has to do to denounce a film or place it in a negative light is make an accusation of stereotyping. It’s a pejorative term. But a stereotype is merely a standard character. Most actors throughout the golden age of Hollywood made their livings playing stereotypes. Lionel Barrymore was often the stern father, under-standing mentor or ruthless banker, as he was most famously in “It’s a Wonderful life.” C. Aubrey Smith was always the fatherly aristocrat, the personification of a beneficent British empire. In over a dozen Sherlock Holmes films, Nigel Bruce was the avuncular friend and sidekick. Ralph Bellamy was the all-around good guy who lost the girl in so many films that other films made reference to it as an in-joke. Dwight Frye, famous as Renfield in “Frankenstein,” played nothing but nervous lunatics.

In fact, most major stars played stereotypes as well. Most of the characters played by Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart or Katherine Hepburn were just as standard. Yes, they were the leads in their films and benefited from a little more shading and complexity. But they each played, with a few odd exceptions, extensions of the persona that the studios had decided they could best handle. Most were not allowed to play against type more than once in a while. Olivia De Havilland waged a major battle with Louis B. Mayer of MGM to be able to shuck off her sweet, wholesome on-screen persona. The reason audiences wanted to be cool and jaded like Bogie or plucky and tough like Rosalind Russell is because they embodied those traits over and over again. Cinematic drama, and to a lesser extent, most forms of drama, is made up of stereotypes. It’s too superficial to be able to handle too much complexity and contradiction in its characters. There’s simply no time to plumb the depths of human emotion and psychology in a ninety minute comedy or a two-hour drama.

When it comes to black characters, as opposed to white ones, cultural critics seem to have already determined that they can’t be anything but stereotypes, in the negative sense. Actually sitting down and judging a given film that’s been painted with this brush is to see that they’re no more standard than any other characters. Often, the filmmakers go out of their way to avoid stereotypes, drama be damned, purely to avoid criticism. It doesn’t matter, the accusations are so automatic as to seem mandatory. Either that or they go in the opposite direction, to condemn the filmmakers, usually with just as much vitriol, of “conspicuously avoiding offense.” They just can’t win. Creating a legitimate black character seems to take a Manhattan Project of meticulous care. But I have yet to see any of these objectional stereotypes. The claims are always absurd. I’m sure I could view any film written and directed by a black filmmaker and lodge the same criticism at its own black characters, or more perverse-ly, at its negatively stereotypical white characters. Why not, if that’s the game we’re playing?

The essence of the issue is the insidious substitution of stereotype for what is really meant here: caricature. But none of these characters comes close to caricature, and if they did, they would be dramatically incongruous to the stories being told. Unless the films in question are animated cartoons, which are supposed to be made up of caricatures, they have to be legitimate or make no sense in that context. Mammy and Prissy in “Gone with the Wind” are stereotypical, but not caricatures. They actually have a lot of personality, much more than that story required, and are fan favorites. Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara’s father are also pretty standard. We don’t really notice because the sheer force of personality that both Clark Gable and Thomas Mitchell bring to those roles. Even Scarlett herself is pretty familiar. But because she’s the center of the nearly four hour film, there’s more time than usual to give her more complexity than the usual romance novel heroine. A lot of credit must also go to Vivien Leigh, a phenomenal actress getting the most out of a starmaking role. If any of these characters had been caricatures, the film would’ve fallen apart in the first hour and seemed interminable.

Uncle Remus may indeed be a stereotype, the wise thoughtful black man mentoring the impulsive, inexperienced white boy. But these are dramatic stereotypes and scenarios, not racial ones. They speak, not to the forced limitations of real people, but to the narrow parameters of storytelling. Uncle Remus is no more of a stereotype than a dozen John Wayne heroes or Conrad Veidt vil-lains. That he becomes a guardian and surrogate father to Johnny takes that stereotype into what is actually revolutionary territory. Would a real plantation boy have been allowed to develop such a familiar relationship with an actual slave?

Todd Boyd, a USC film professor, has labeled SOTS “a very racist film,” condemning Uncle Remus as another “passive, non-threatening slave.” Professor Boyd is merely taking advantage of the opportunity to protest the film and hawk the academic party line. Even worse, film critic Roger Ebert, in a shameless act of patrician condescension, wants the film restricted to a highly selective scholarly audience. Apparently, the general public is simply not responsible enough to see the film unsupervised. “I’d hate to be an African-American child going to school on the day after its release,” goes his argument. This sounds suspiciously like the old Catholic Legion of Decency’s practice of viewing films to see if they’re suitable for everyone else. Come on. If a few priests can watch a film and come away unscathed, so can the rest of us. No doubt the same critics would defend the buffoonish images and behavior of gangsta rappers. Why is Uncle Remus an unforgivable stereotype, but not Tupac, with his gold jewelry and doo-rag, not to mention his stereotypically hip-hop demise?

Even celebrated and revolutionary characters, both black and white, become stereotypes by default. “Raisin in the Sun” was shattering and revolutionary in its time, and the lead in the film, played by Sidney Poitier, jumped off the screen with his ferocious honesty. But by the 70's, this character, the angry black rebel ready to explode, had become so standard that it bordered on self-parody. The character of the long-suffering religious mother was also pretty hoary by then as well. They both were even the objects of ridicule in a satirical play by George C. Wolfe, and subsequently, a hilarious Saturday Night Live sketch in which not only the characters were parodied, but the melodramatic, scenery chewing acting style to boot. Nowa-days, these sorts of standard characters would no doubt be met only with laughter by black audiences. Familiarity really does breed contempt.

This underscores the ephemeral nature of commercial drama. As important and revolutionary as a play or a movie may seem at the time, its effect is always rendered of lesser significance later. When the Cosby Show came along in the 80's, black audi-ences welcomed, and even celebrated, its depiction of “these positive role models.” Cosby and Phylicia Rashad played highly cultured professionals, a doctor and lawyer, living in a nice brownstone of their own, in an affluent, racially diverse Brooklyn neighborhood. After a few years, when the show had become just another part of the cultural landscape, black critics and pundits once again denounced the show as an unrealistic portrayal of black life with which few black families had anything in common. The show was seen almost as a cruel taunt to the thousands of blacks struggling to break into the middle classes, let alone the upper class. It’s also interesting to note that Cosby’s own famous Saturday morning cartoon of the early 70's, “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids,” was full of stereotypes. But nobody cared back then. It was a good show, endearing, funny and irreverent, even with the earnest lesson that Cosby himself summed up on-screen at the end of each show, followed by a song played by the kids, of course.

What does it say about our time, then, with its alarmist self-righteous indignation and moral superiority making their shrill presence known at every conceivable opportunity, as opposed to the previous one, a much more thoughtful era, in which the ability to maintain a distance from the content of its popu-lar art created some of the best films and TV shows in American cultural history? Because of this lack of obsession with score keeping and ethnic cheerleading, there was also much more crossover interest back then. Despite the fact that there were no white characters on “Fat Albert,” white kids, myself included, watched it faithfully. On the other side, the Isley Brothers 1971 album, “Givin’ It Back,” included covers of songs by white folk artists such as Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Stephen Stills and Neil Young. We can hardly imagine a black group doing that now. Even more astonishing is the 1969 song by country music legend Merle Haggard, “Irma Jackson,” an ode to unrequited interracial romance. C & W stars would never do such a tune today. Less due to the touchy subject matter, but merely because of their narrowly focused, narcissistic sensibilities and marketing demographics. Before the left took haughty possession of “diversity” as its highly guarded political territory, American culture actually was diverse. It was the hair-splitting oversensitivity and constant accusations to the contrary that turned a natural aspect of all culture into a political and cultural minefield.

This brings us to the next issue, and perhaps the most important, the contradictory impulse among black Americans to both celebrate and reject the full depth and breadth of their rich history. Discomfort with slave images are understandable, especially since slavery is so recent. It hardly seems the dusty, distant stuff of ancient history, which is no longer taken so personally. Perhaps, as the twenty-first century evolves, the same result will occur. But for the moment, when elderly blacks still have first hand knowledge of Jim Crow and their own grand-parents were ex-slaves, there can be little change. It’s too close and too painful. American blacks have been trying to leave this horrible legacy behind for the last century. They don’t want it to be a reflection of them, and thus the chief basis on which they’re perceived.

But this has created an unfortunate impetus among blacks to completely reject their culture and history. There’s always a question of what it means to be black, or whether one is “black enough.” Despite the impassioned overtures by black intellec-tuals about the importance of education, there remains a persistent discomfort with academic accomplishment. Articulate blacks are still accused of “talking white” by their peers. Anything that compromises one’s street cred is rejected, or is at least the source of great inner conflict, for fear of alienating the larger black community. Visit any college with a minority of black students and they’ll be seen eating and socializing together. This was well-documented in the 1997 book, “Why Are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” More interesting, however, is the occurrence of the few black students who seem to float casually between the smaller black group and the larger white one. They’re invariably criticized by their fellow black students, who resent their comfort and familiarity with both student communities. They no doubt wish they could do the same, but simply don’t know how. They don’t even try, assuming that they have nothing in common with whites and cannot possibly be friends with them. The whites often make the same assumption, but they have less to lose in the equation. The fact is, the blacks, living in an essentially white society, are obligated to bridge that gap, or risk permanently limiting their professional futures.

The true problem is a masochistic self-consciousness, as if blacks are simply too aware of their blackness. The best example of this on film is “A Soldier’s Story.” The Sarge, played by Adolph Caesar, is alternately protective and contemptuous of CJ, an unsophisticated country boy. He’s the best player on the company baseball team, as well as an affecting blues singer and guitar player. Sarge both hates and loves CJ’s simple, natural talents, and his unself-conscious good nature. CJ embodies the limitations of being black, as Sarge sees them. At times, he can’t stand CJ’s very presence. He chastises him, demanding that he “Cut out that guitar-pickin’-sittin’-’round-the-shack music!” It’s painful to watch Sarge’s descent into bitterness, but that’s the point of the film. More so than it’s murder mystery plot. Sarge is so aware of his blackness that his self-hatred causes CJ to commit suicide and results in his own murder.

Now one might argue that the larger white society makes this so, and in many situations, this is true. But blacks would probably be amazed by the many situations in which this assumption is theirs alone. And even those that have a racial aspect, do not have a racist one. In a recent book about black/white relations, it was pointed out that it’s an insult for white women to run their fingers through their long hair in the presence of black women. The real question there is why the hell are black women so interested in the hair of white women? I would sincerely doubt that they are, and the writer is making another of these bogus academic assertions. One can only imagine the reaction to a white academic making such a statement as, When black people dance in the presence of whites, it’s an insult to them.

The problem is that ethnicity is both vastly overrated and, in a smaller sense, equally underrated. Ultimately, no one can say what engages, inspires and teaches us. To assume that people have a deeper understanding of “their” culture, or are more motivated by positive examples of it is a ridiculous illusion. If we believe, as the so-called tolerant among us propose, that race is a fiction and has no value, then no one can say they even have a specific culture, much less have some greater connection to it or gain a more profound sense of self from it. Suzan-Lori Parks, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright of the recently acclaimed “Topdog/Underdog,” mentioned in the New York Times that she had a great artistic epiphany upon finally reading and understanding Shakespeare. Similarly, Martin Scorcese was inspired in the mid-fifties by the Apu trilogy of Indian film director Satyjit Ray. He remarked that the simple stories of working class city life reminded him of both Italian neo-realist films and life in his parents’ small lower Manhattan neighborhood. Words and images speak to us because of who we are as individuals, not as members of huge groups. Tell me you are black, white, Catholic, Jewish, etc. and you have told me next to nothing. That’s the starting line, not the finish. One might even go so far as to say that the more distant, or foreign, a culture is, the more it is likely to affect us, for we’re able to see it as a distinct whole, enormous and overwhelming, precisely because it’s so new and different. We also do not have a vested interest in it and are more open to its seductions. Whereas the burden of our own culture is often resented for our obligations to it. It’s something we have to live up to and become custodian of, thereby neutralizing most of its allure and power.

The only way to really deflate the racial aspects of culture is to ignore them. As Cornel West points out in “Race Matters,” a race consciousness, a continual search for what he terms black authenticity, will always lead people astray. Instead of objective judgement and moral reasoning, an oversensitivity and ultra-awareness of all things racial produces a lack of meaningful and lasting accomplishment. The intellectual cheap thrill that comes from accusations of racism only leaves the accuser empty and frustrated. Racially fetishistic acts such as the “Million Man March” appeal to the ego and actually bring nothing to the black community. One can see the appeal, but if ever there were a pyrrhic victory, that’s it. And there wasn’t just one of these marches, but quite a few, until the very idea became a joke. But then it’s much easier to attempt to shame others into action than doing something yourself. One has to wonder if the explosion of superficial protest, the politics of outrage, the culture wars, etc., aren’t merely a desperate cover-up for the confusion and impotence brought on by matters of racial inequality. Now that we know all too well just how pervasive and complex the depth and destruction of racism are, honestly, what can we do about it? One either believes in the uniform equality of humanity or one does not. The concept cannot be taught, and only the hardcore racist can change himself.

The practical denunciation and banning of “Song of the South” is, in essence, hitting a very small nail with a huge hammer. Disney would no doubt further defend itself by the claim that it does not wish to be seen making money from such a questionable source. It might go so far as to claim that it doesn’t even want to actually make money from such a questionable source. But this, alas, is not the case, for the company makes a lot on “Song of the South.” Millions of people visit Disney World every year. One of its major attractions is Splash Mountain. Along with Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s probably the most famous and popular of rides. The company only recently found a way to fully exploit Pirates with a blockbuster summer film of the same name. But it has been eagerly exploiting Splash Mountain for decades.

The ride isn’t based on any story, film or book in the Disney cannon, not directly. But the company pretends that it is, for its family friendly characters are none other than Brer Rabbit, Brer Bear and ornery ol’ Brer Fox, from “Song of the South.” Uncle Remus, however, is conspicuously absent. It’s a tribute to Disney’s marketing that it has managed to extract the nostalgia and animation from the film that dare not speak its name, while completely abandoning their supposedly embarrassing source. Mi-raculously, the ride is advertised and conducted as if it has nothing to do with “Song of the South.” One almost has to simply stand back and applaud such a seamless act of commercial sleight of hand.

Under the radar of the academics and cultural critics who’d excoriate SOTS and Disney, the film is, and has been, a huge industry. It makes millions for Disney despite all the hoopla, and the company’s scrupulous manipulation of its squeaky clean reputation. For some reason, the emblematic use of the SOTS characters at a major theme park ride continues to escape notice.

It’s all the more peculiar considering that there’s no natural connection between Splash Mountain and the briar patch characters of the Joel Chandler Harris stories. Conversely, there is no Splash Mountain among Disney lore either. It comes from no book, no movie, no cartoon short. The Splash Mountain ride is the re-ult of a much more conventional theme park need, the roller coaster. How could the intended best and most famous amusement park in the world, when it was built, not have a roller coaster? In many ways, the roller coaster is what has always defined the amusement park. Coney Island had, and still has, the Cyclone. In fact, it’s probably what keeps that rickety, obsolete old park from being torn down. Disney World had to have something comparable. Being in a warm weather beach setting, this signature attraction also had to reflect that virtually year-round feature. It needed some kind of water-oriented coaster that was unlike any ride anywhere else.

Unfortunately for its synergistic impulses, the company had never set a story on or around a water slide or a big lagoon it could exploit. So it just made one up and pretended that it was as much a beloved favorite of the Magic Kingdom as Mickey Mouse or the ominous castle in “Sleeping Beauty.” A flume, the ride is magnificent and a lot of fun, a must for any visitor. One sits in a log-shaped car, slides down a long chute, and plunges into a man-made lake. It’s a lot more exhilarating than diving into a briar patch. But this isn’t enough in terms of the Disney experience. Without corresponding animated characters, there’s less identification and therefore less of a connection, especi-ally for children. Fortunately, some were available. Brer Rabbit, Fox and Bear weren’t otherwise occupied. Neither were Uncle Remus and the Tar Baby, but they were summarily dismissed from the Splash Mountain setting a while back after some minor criticism regarding their inappropriate nature.

Characters also provide something else essential to the Disney experience, souvenirs. The SOTS characters have been com-pletely severed from their cinematic origins, freeing them for the aggressive marketing that is now a crucial source of revenue in the entertainment business. Ancillary sales, as it’s known, including cable and video, often total more than domestic box office for new films. For older and classic films, the exploitation of nostalgia can turn into a virtually neverending stream of money. Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Bear represent Splash Mountain and Disney World in the form of everything from key chains and fridge magnets to figurines and stuffed animals. Do not underestimate this area of commercial representation. It has gone beyond a consolatory trinket to appease the kiddies on the way home after they’ve been torn away from the park, to become an end in itself. These items make millions. Action figures alone are so essential to the fan base of an entertainment product that it seems only network news anchors aren’t represented by them. Walk into a comic shop or toy store and prepare to be astonished, truly astonished, by the number of action figures. No longer reserved for the biggest stars and blockbuster films, they exist for “Reservoir Dogs,” “Clerks,” “The Osbournes,” Fritz Lang’s silent “Metropolis,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” you-name-it. They even have them for Sigmund Freud and Edgar Allan Poe. No doubt, some toys support their films, rather than the other way around.

Video, on the other hand, posed something of a problem for Disney in the beginning. This was the new big thing, and there was a lot of money to be made. But the company always scrupu-lously guarded its product, and home video was also a Pandora’s Box. How could it keep up its seven-year cycle of precious re-releases if a film was already in everyone’s home and could be played a hundred times a week? It wanted to sell tapes probably as much as it wanted to keep them locked away in the vault for-ever. So it was careful, trying not to devalue or oversell a given title. First, it vowed that “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” and “Fantasia,” the gems of the organization, would never be on video. As for the rest, it created a specific release strategy and stuck to it for about ten years, or as long as was practical. It seems unrealistic now, but Disney tried to duplicate the seven-year cycle by making every release a “limited time only” proposition. It also made each tape incredibly expensive. “Peter Pan” came out first, at a whopping $79.95. The company was spared from market saturation by the accidental saving grave of the home video industry, consumer apathy. No one wanted to buy tapes, they just wanted to see them.

Despite initial protest by the movie studios, small video stores popped up, bought the tapes, and rented them over and over. Disney still wanted people to buy the tapes outright, and eventually the prices came down. They also still kept them on limited release cycles, all but a few titles that were in per-petual circulation. Eventually, even the crown jewels of “Snow White” and “Fantasia” were released with great fanfare, stressing the “for a limited time only” aspect. There was simply too much money to be made, and the company was able to get two full release cycles out of its hallowed classics. Collectors even started paying upwards of a hundred dollars a tape when that limited time ran out. Interestingly, the re-releases only enhanced the attraction of the original video releases, although most subsequent releases were tied to a film’s anniversary and came with snazzy new packaging. “Song of the South” remained the exception, of course. The company did venture so far as to release, as part of their sing-a-long series, the “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” scenes from the film in a tape of the same name. It’s peculiar that the world was ready for this glimpse of Uncle Remus in lieu of the whole thing. These tapes, in which song clips from the vast Disney repertoire were compiled in half hour lots with the lyrics on the screen so the kiddies could sing along, were a sneaky, clever way to commercially exploit much of the Disney catalogue without letting go of films in their entirety. It was a way to keep the seven-year system intact, so kids could still see each classic in a theater, as if it were a new film. The fear of losing that theatrical release was offset for quite a while. Now, it doesn’t exist anymore. Video has been around too long and simply too many tapes have been sold. Ironically, if Disney had just released SOTS on video at some point along the way, whatever “controversy” arose would have died long ago and the issue neutralized. DVD, however, gives this scenario another chance and forestalls the inevitable.

We can’t blame Disney for doing what everyone else is doing, and making money that’s there for the taking. As George Carlin once said, “Nail two things together that nobody ever nailed together before, and some schmuck will buy it.” Boy, will they.

The more Disney creates for its ancillary sales, the more people buy it. There are Disney stores in most major cities, and every film, character, cartoon, TV show, etc. is represented by every possible item, be it plaything, clothing, foodstuff, tchochke, gew-gaw and trinket. Why shouldn’t they do the same for the Splash Mountain characters, a.k.a. the “Song of the South” characters? Having been completely separated from the original Uncle Remus stories, which were as widely known, loved and read in their time as Peanuts and Dr. Suess, they now stand on their own, as if the source never existed. The stories first appeared in the Atlanta Constitution, and the books were so popular in the first half of the twentieth century that they initiated quite a lot of memorabilia of their own. That’s the stuff that’s really worth something. For no real reason, they fell by the wayside, like much of the children’s literature of the early 1900's. Perhaps they just seemed too hokey and old fashioned, and failed to age well. If not for Disney, it’s doubtful that anyone would know who Brer Rabbit or Brer Fox are today, even though one can walk into any Barnes & Noble and still find their tales in hand-some, illustrated hardback editions. One of them is actually re-written in modern English. Clearly, someone thought they were important enough to preserve, though this approach ultimately defeats the purpose. The film, however, certainly gave them an ex-tended life, until recently.

Perhaps this is why the filmmakers thought it necessary to make SOTS two-thirds live action and show Uncle Remus as a storyteller. At the time, the books still seemed worth paying tribute to, the literary pedigree worth emphasizing. The film was impor-tant and ambitious for Disney. It was their first foray into live-action filmmaking, and James Basket was their first actor to be hired for more than his voice. The fact that the stories were originally handed down to Harris orally from ex-slaves makes them especially significant. Writing them down was his way of preserving a vital tradition, for the characters of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox were also veiled figures of African-American rebellion, the stories being parables of how slaves might survive the whims of work and oppression through cleverness and deception. This is the most ironic aspect of the entire SOTS saga, for it’s exactly what has placed it under its current cloud. I wonder if its plight would be the same if the entire film had been animated. In fact, most of the legitimate criticism is not of its suspect depiction of slavery, but its limitations as entertainment. Most critics and reviewers call attention to the live action portions as less interesting and unfortunate distractions from the animated interludes, which are excellent and as worthy of the same reputation as anything Disney has ever done. They jump off the screen in that inimitable Disney style, while the rest of it is too well-intentioned and deliberate to be effective. It’s been constructed to teach a lesson, and it looks like it. Disney obviously thought it achieved what it set out to, since it brought back the two child leads a year later in “So Dear to My Heart,” a live-action only story that serves as an unofficial sequel. It owes nothing to SOTS or the Harris books, but was clearly conceived to be reminiscent of them. It has always, by the way, been available on home video. Perhaps this is because Uncle Remus and the plantation are conspicuously absent.

Disney’s refusal to confront the SOTS problem, and especially its continued silence on the matter, has also created an un-derground base of fans who carry the torch for the film’s re-entry into society. It was able to get away with this form of cultural fascism for a long time. Then the Internet came along. You can bet that the company wishes they’d already released the film and just dealt with it. The Internet is the perfect thorn in the side of such conflicts, guaranteeing that the issue won’t go away until the company finally releases the film, if only on some home video format. There are at least a dozen or so web-sites for SOTS fans and advocates. They get only a fraction of the hits in a day that a site for “Star Wars” or “The Matrix” gets in the average lunch hour. But the enthusiasm and diligence of the creators is commendable. They feel that they’re truly carrying the torch for SOTS and fighting the great fight. Sign up and you’ll get a regular update on SOTS news, including links to sources of procuring the film on VHS. Most of the time, when they aren’t cooing over the newest piece of memorabilia, planning a SOTS convention to display and trade that memorabilia, discus-sing their outrage and bafflement over the ban, they’re mulling over the latest hot stove scuttle-butt about the film’s DVD release. Go to any site and there will be news of the most recent “plan” to finally release “Song of the South” to the public. This is all nonsense of course. If Disney were going to do it, they would just announce the release date and be done with it. There would be no rumors or secret plans or intrigue of any kind. It will be interesting to see how long they can resist, consi-dering the money to be made on it. It’s the only classic title that has not taken in re-release revenue in almost twenty years. The film was briefly out of circulation during the civil rights movement as well, as Disney must’ve sensed that it would be out of step with the times. With Disney’s recent financial conflicts and personnel clashes, the temptation to make up all that lost ground must be great. It might be worth their weathering any storm of bad publicity and negative attention to start that revenue stream flowing again. Eventually, that’s what will happen anyway, so they might as well get to it.

The SOTS webmasters and their followers have no doubt developed much of their interest based on the banning and unavailability of the film. It’s given them a cause, however dubious.

The MPAA monitors and occasionally harasses them, accusing people such as Christian Willis of the songofthesouth.net of trafficking in bootleg tapes. Naturally, they have no problem with him and his brethren collecting and promoting all the Splash Mountain toys and mementos they churn out. Indeed, you can bet that they rely on it, as do all other studios on their fan sites to increase awareness of product and its inevitable consequence: ancillary income. Like most arch enemies, they’re flip sides of the same coin and deserve each other. If Disney really wants these sites to disappear and see this cause fade away, it’ll just release the film as if it’s no big deal. One wonders how they can resist. It’s money there for the taking, and a controversy eliminated. It’s possible that once available, SOTS will no longer even retain its precious reputation as a forgotten classic. Like so many of Disney’s lesser films, it’ll just be part of the mostly neglected home video landscape. In the long run, the company will not only do it anyway, they’ll be proud of it. The final stage of the “Song of the South” saga can be only one thing: redemption and reclamation, in true Hollywood fashion.

This is the final stage of the SOTS saga, and its most peculiar. The perverse and destructive schizophrenia that results in the black rejection of its own culture is counteracted by an equal desire to reclaim it. What is rejected is always eventually embraced. Each stage of an artistic discipline is coldly abandoned for the next phase in a crazy effort to outrun the past and rejuvenate the identity. The current is positive and legitimate. What came before is offensive and insulting. Quite often, a cultural icon or art form is placed in a negative light as another example of Uncle Tomism. This often creeps in when the person or art form has become too acceptable to whites. This is another perverse aspect of racial hyperawareness. Blacks are always criticizing whites for not appreciating or accepting their culture. But when we do, a different kind of resentment takes over. Blacks then feel as if they’ve lost control of their culture and its practitioners. They feel betrayed, and consider that the artists have sold out. Once they perceive that its exclusivity, its street cred, has disappeared, it seems to offer nothing any longer. There’s no sense of evolution, the old always seems to taint the new. The new must stand on its own, as if the past is owed nothing, or there is no past. This is depressing, because the community is forever losing its cultural identity, all while claiming the importance of scrupulously guarding its precious cultural legacy.

Black audiences systematically abandoned blues for jazz, jazz for bebop, bebop for R&B, R&B for funk, and finally, funk for rap, which is where we are now. Major blues musicians such as B.B. King and rock and roll icons such as Little Richard and Bo Diddley have bemoaned the disappearance of their black fan base for decades. They have been supported, both live and on recordings, by an almost exclusively white audience. One even has to wonder, despite all the strident, impassioned rhetoric about preserving the culture, if younger blacks have any idea of black popular culture before 1980. This includes black writers such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin. The literature, the culture, the history is out there for anyone, white or black, who wants to pursue it. Culture is everyone’s, or it is no one’s. If we haven’t learned that by now, then we never will. The question is who’s actually pursuing it, rather than pretending to or talking about it.

Such rejection has created embarrassing situations such as the denunciation of Louis Armstrong during the Black Power era.

Despite being the most famous living black American, and a tireless ambassador for jazz, as well as a crafty, behind-the-scenes spokesman for equality and civil rights, the “community” felt Armstrong was a throwback to the stereotypical black entertainers of pre-radical days; servile, bug-eyed, and worst of all, eager to please whites. No one would make that statement now, or even admit to thinking it then. But Louis Armstrong was as persona non grata in radical black circles in the late 60's as Uncle Tom himself, or as Uncle Remus is now. It’s as if there’s an innate mechanism of merciless sacrifice regarding black artists. At any given time, a handful are ruthlessly cut loose in order to elevate a host of others. Somehow, the two groups are assumed to be mutually exclusive, and this view is never raised or challenged. Once again, this is about an obsessive self-consciousness, a feeling of being under an imagined public microscope, deathly afraid of having the white majority think the worst. Even unassailable icons such as Martin Luther King, Sidney Poitier and Sammy Davis, Jr. were criticized and dismissed in their time. Despite their accomplishments, the community eventually found them too perfect, too passive, too non-threatening, to offer anything to most blacks. It often seems that once too much recognition has been achieved, lower middle class and blue collar blacks fear that they’ve been left behind. The person has gone too far, is too successful, and therefore far beyond the reach of regular folk. They no longer inspire and provide satisfaction.

Ironically, Disney need not do anything to remedy the situation, because it will come out on top in the long run anyway. Once enough time has passed, and the object of rejection is no longer worth all the trouble to denounce, or has been forgotten enough to become neutralized as a target, it’s re-discovered or re-evaluated. Very often it’s a natural process. The level of accomplishment and contribution can no longer be ignored, and acceptance is granted once again. The previous loss of standing suddenly appears as vicious, unjust and outrageous as ever, and the community simply can’t refrain from changing its calculated and indefensible opinion. It’s hard to continue to gang up on heroes and pioneers like W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King and Sidney Poitier, no matter what your po-litical agenda and cultural outlook.

The more interesting, but no less inevitable, process of reclamation involves those whose reputations and activities ap-peared to be utterly irreparable. From the historical scrapheap, these unfortunate victims of time and circumstance appear on the horizon again, back from the exile of obscurity and anonymity. Most of the time, the process is gradual, and they seem to occupy a limbo, until someone comes along and waves them back into the fold of legitimacy and acceptance. They always seem to be less of a liability or embarrassment than they did for so long, when they were ostracized. But this can go on for a long time. What’s required, and what usually occurs, is a deliberate re-evaluation and resurrection. It’s usually academic, since what put them on the outs in the first place was probably academic as well. In most of these cases, a few leaders spoke for the whole black community in denouncing these figures, and no one pro-tested. One only has to assume that there was a lot of disagree-ment, but it was easier just to go along with the trend. So the groundwork is always there, the landscape ripe for the change of heart. It’s just a question of when, how and whom.

If the mechanism seems arbitrary, it is. There’s really no reason any one of them couldn’t have been saved a long time ago. But this is because the issue is, and has always been, self-con-sciousness and territorialism, form, not content. As Kris Kristofferson once sang, “Everybody needs somebody to look down on.” But they also need somebody to look up to, and heroes and icons are too hard to come by to dispose of permanently. All it takes is a scholar or pundit or even some obscure grad student trying to find an interesting subject to write his thesis about, to reassess someone’s career in the positive. In 2002, Hattie McDaniel was the subject of such a resurrection, in an award winning documentary film. After decades of being an embarrassment to the black community, even to the point of being denounced by the NAACP for her many roles as maids and servants, she was lauded for the secretly subversive nature of those same roles. Clips of movies such as “Bombshell” and “Blond Venus” were employed to show how she was often a sisterly comrade of the white star, making sly, sarcastic comments on the action. The servant role was merely a forum for her sassy wit and physical comedy, a la Moliere, and any servility a facade with little resemblance to an actual real-life maid. To the audience, she poked a hole in the upper class pretensions of her employers and gave a struggling, depression era moviegoer access to the lofty environs of the rich while providing insight on their foibles and problems. This form of African-American comedy is in the process of being newly appreciated as a vital aspect of black cultural history, and an essential link to the work of present day actors and comedians. This is not merely sophistry, for it was always thus. But the political and cultural climate provided a different agenda, and it was sacrificed on the alter of progress and respectability. This is why the culture should never be policed by anyone for any reason. Obviously, there’s simply no point if the criticism is all going to be rescinded in the end anyway.

Nothing and no one is beyond reclamation either, which is why it’s always inevitable. Until the late Gregory Hines and Savion Glover made tap dancing respectable again, there was pro-bably no other single activity so closely associated with the negative stereotypes of African-American folk culture. Even the seemingly hopeless case of Stepin Fetchit, the image of black servitude in old Hollywood, whose very name became synonymous with a contemptible servility, will eventually find his way back into the good graces of the community. He created a singular comic persona, and, divorced from any implication in the real world, is an icon of black entertainment. He also made snide little asides at the expense of his co-stars, stealing scenes and subverting the responsibilities of his characters’ servitude by pretending to be slow and unreliable. He need not be anymore embarrassing to blacks than the Three Stooges are to whites. Their characters are purely aesthetic constructs. They’re entertainers engaged in a performance, and should be judged by their technique and artistry, not as “role models,” that infuriating and meaningless catch-all litmus test for the proponents of iden-tity politics. There’s no such thing as a role model. Watching Bogie or even Paul Robeson provides artistic example, and perhaps some inspiration, but that’s where it ends. No one’s life is saved or significantly altered by the viewing of actors. It’s all up to the individual audience member, and any offense is self-generating. The people who are so offended by some so-called stereotype are the same ones who quickly sign on when that stereotype is proclaimed to be complex, subversive and an integral part of a rich artistic legacy. Most people would be in-terested, if not downright astonished, to learn that Stepin Fetchit, real name Lincoln Perry, was given an Image Award by NAACP in 1976 and voted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1978. He was the first black performer to receive featured billing in American movies, and made two million dollars during the 30's alone. At one time he owned sixteen cars, including a pink Rolls Royce, and employed sixteen Chinese servants. His off-screen behavior seems no different than that of a lot of current rap stars, whose own public personas are certainly no less of a stereotype and equally phony. They may be “keepin’ it real” now, but who knows, in time, the community may find them just as much of an embarrassment and worthy of rejection as Stepin Fetchit or Uncle Remus. Conversely, some Ph.D. candidate may simultaneously stake his academic future on a thesis about Uncle Remus’s link to the African griot, a tribal storyteller and folk historian essential to black American cultural awareness.

If resurrection is inevitable, it might as well be done sooner than later, to save time and trouble. SOTS has suffered long enough, when it didn’t really have to suffer at all. It deserves to be thought of for what it is, an innocuous family film of the 1940's with a few great animated sequences. James Baskett, who received a special Oscar for his portrayal of an archetypal character in American literature, and died tragically two years later, should be saved from the scrapheap. I’m sure his family, if he has one, would appreciate it. Disney would do its reputation a favor by honestly acknowledging its role in creating what was merely a current form of characterization in American popular culture. Such films as SOTS are part of the cultural landscape and must be accepted as such, as opposed to being subjected to some cowardly form of revisionist history that’s right out of Orwell’s “Nineteen-Eighty Four." Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page readily admits that SOTS was a childhood favorite and that, “We can now look at ‘Song of the South’ with a new awareness and appreciation.” The conde-scending opposition to the film by Todd Boyd and Roger Ebert, who should really know better, will no doubt whither in the face of such an honest and common sense personal assessment.

Racial outrage should be preserved for situations that are extreme and undeniable. Many things are racial, but by compari-son, very few are racist. There’s a huge difference for anyone who can think for himself and takes these issues seriously. Even the NAACP recognized the artistic merit of SOTS in its initial release and decided against actively protesting it, as it still does today. True racism can only be opposed by avoiding trivial instances of racial tension and conflict. If everything is deemed racist, the concept not only has no meaning, but trivial and ephemeral controversies take the place of genuine ones. The rejection of “Song of the South” can’t save anyone, and in turn, the reclamation of it can’t either. It’s just an old movie, destined to become relegated to the vast, benign legacy of American film history and popular culture, representing not who we are, but simply what entertains us. It’s just what we like to do when we’re not engaged in more important activities.


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