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Disney's SONG OF THE SOUTH: a truly offensive musical?

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Interested in others' thoughts about this film. For several years TCM has partnered with Disney to broadcast treasures from the studio's classic film vault. But host Leonard Maltin has yet to introduce this title to TCM viewers and I sincerely doubt he will. Though I don't think Maltin finds it as offensive as Roger Ebert did.

Screen Shot 2018-06-16 at 2.21.34 PM.jpg

SONG OF THE SOUTH (1946) with Oscar recipient James Baskett

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I only have seen a few clips from this movie, so I can’t really fairly say whether the film deserves as much controversy as it does or not. I will say, though, that Disney’s behavior regarding this film has always baffled me, not necessarily because they refuse to acknowledge its existence, but more the fact that they refuse to acknowledge its existence while still using their animated characters as part of the Splash Mountain ride at both of Disney’s theme parks.

For the record, I love Splash Mountain, at least the one at Disney World (I haven’t been to Disneyland), and, from what I understand, the animated portions are not considered as controversial as the live-action portions. However, the animated scenes do contain the infamous “Tar Baby,” so it’s not as though these segments are devoid of racial insensitivity and audiences probably will question where the characters came from, so having the rides with these controversial characters as the central theme seems confusing.

I would also like to note that Disney did campaign hard for lead actor James Baskett to receive an Academy Award for his performance (the Academy refused to nominate him for Best Actor, but Disney was able to get him an honorary one). Also, Nick Stewart, the actor who voiced Br’er Bear, said in an interview in the 1980s that Disney treated the voice actors (who were all African American) “like kings.” Judging by this information, Disney may not have been trying to make something intentionally racist and for all we know, it could be a similar case to Hallelujah, in which the intentions at the time were harmless but come across as uncomfortable today.

I would like to emphasize that I am not defending this film; I’m not going to defend a film I have not seen all the way through, and even if Disney didn’t intend for the work to come across as racially insensitive back then, there are at least elements that come across that way today. I just wanted to make clear that making this film doesn’t automatically make Disney racist, as I feel some have tried to imply with this film. Also, Stewart said that he contributed his pay for this movie to his Ebony Showcase Theatre, which was made as a way to help African American actors do some acting without having to conform to using the common stereotypes of the time, so at least that money went towards a good cause.

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It's been decades since I've seen this film, and if the majority of the students here are of the younger set I imagine they have never seen it.  Maybe have never heard of it.

Since I grew up in a home that never saw a difference in skin color (of which I feel blessed-I always say 'we all bleed red') I didn't see what others saw in this film.

Would Baskett have played this part if he thought is was offensive?  I wish I knew his feelings on this.  He was given a special Oscar for the portrayal.  So many like it.

We are talking so much here, during this course, about remembering the time in which some of these films are made-or the era in which they are depicting. Sadly, it's too late for this film

with Disney still holding it back.  Luckily, I have records with some of the songs-yes the old vinyl. 

It's a shame that someone who lived such a short life-I believe he passed in his forties or early fifties-cannot have his work enjoyed today (by those of us who would). 

I'm glad Hattie McDaniel-who was criticized for playing maids-shrugged her shoulders.  That woman makes me smile every time she enters the screen.  I don't care

what's she's playing.  I love her.

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Thanks Fearless and pbm for such thoughtful posts. I'd never seen SONG OF THE SOUTH and since I'd heard so much about it, naturally I was curious what all the fuss was about.

The film is offensive but also not offensive...if that makes sense. It's offensive if viewed with today's sensibilities. But not really offensive when seen as an innocent product of the 1940s. Interestingly the NAACP took issue when SONG OF THE SOUTH was released, but clearly they were unable to stop the film from being exhibited. It was re-released and shown on TV several times, plus there was a VHS release on home video in the 80s. 

Eventually political correctness did catch up with SONG OF THE SOUTH. About three years ago I saw the title was available in my public library system. I was living in Wisconsin then. It was at another branch so I requested it. The combination of animation and real-life is so smoothly handled. The music is excellent, and the performances are quite good. In addition to Baskett, we have Bobby Driscoll, Hattie McDaniel, Ruth Warrick and Lucile Watson. All of them are superb. 

I was glad I had the chance to see the film and judge it for myself without someone thought policing me or trying to tell me I shouldn't watch it.

I noticed on the DVD cover the film had been purchased from an Australian company that carries Disney products. And it was a new DVD. So this told me Disney is still releasing SONG OF THE SOUTH and making money on it in foreign countries. If it really is so offensive, shouldn't it be banned in all countries?

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I’m sure it’s on Disney’s side that SOTS doesn’t get played. TCM had no issue with showing many films that contain scenes deemed offensive by today’s standards. Yankee Doodle Dandy for one. I do believe Disney should release the film in the US though. It’s dumb that’s it’s available on DVD in every other country but ours. 

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I remember this film when it was on television. I was little, but I thought it was silly and stupid.

However, "Zippity Doo Dah" was a very popular song that a lot of people recorded. I don't think anybody really associates it with this film anymore.

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5 minutes ago, Princess of Tap said:

I remember this film when it was on television. I was little, but I thought it was silly and stupid.

However, "Zippity Doo Dah" was a very popular song that a lot of people recorded. I don't think anybody really associates it with this film anymore.

Disney made SONG OF THE SOUTH for kids and probably thought it was harmless. But people like Roger Ebert seemed to think that's what made it more damaging, because it could leave a racist impression on young minds.

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I have seen Song of the South a few times and it's not nearly as bad as people say it is. It's honestly way better in terms of portrayals of African Americans than most films coming out at the time. It's not particularly sensitive by modern standards, but even within the Disney canon there are far more offensive portrayals of racial minority groups (like the native tribe in Peter Pan) and James Baskett is incredibly charming as Uncle Remus. It's worth watching if you can find it just as a form of cultural study, but the live action bits that take up the majority of the run time are pretty boring. The animated bits are wonderful though. I really wish Disney would just suck it up and release it to home video with a documentary in front examining the cultural impact and how the portrayal of African Americans in Hollywood movies has changed since the 1940's, similar to what they did when they released all of Disney's World War II propaganda shorts on DVD.

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1 hour ago, bmenze said:

I’m sure it’s on Disney’s side that SOTS doesn’t get played. TCM had no issue with showing many films that contain scenes deemed offensive by today’s standards. Yankee Doodle Dandy for one. I do believe Disney should release the film in the US though. It’s dumb that’s it’s available on DVD in every other country but ours. 

You're right, it is Disney holding it from being released.

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Interesting that Disney releases it overseas.  I guess that means it's in a different format so we can't order it.  What a shame.

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16 minutes ago, pbm said:

Interesting that Disney releases it overseas.  I guess that means it's in a different format so we can't order it.  What a shame.

The copy I obtained from the library in Wisconsin was manufactured in Australia but I was able to use it on my DVD player. It looked exactly like the one here on the Amazon site for Australia:

https://www.amazon.com.au/Song-South-Cartoon-Walt-Disney/dp/B00004RO2K/ref=sr_1_1?s=movies-and-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1529204652&sr=1-1&keywords=song+of+the+south

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10 minutes ago, TopBilled said:

The copy I obtained from the library in Wisconsin was manufactured in Australia but I was able to use it on my DVD player. It looked exactly like the one here on the Amazon site for Australia:

https://www.amazon.com.au/Song-South-Cartoon-Walt-Disney/dp/B00004RO2K/ref=sr_1_1?s=movies-and-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1529204652&sr=1-1&keywords=song+of+the+south

Well I've purchased CD's from Australia, so maybe I'll give this a try.  At least get a dialogue with someone over there.  They can usually tell you if it universal or not. 

Thanks for the tip.

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4 minutes ago, pbm said:

Well I've purchased CD's from Australia, so maybe I'll give this a try.  At least get a dialogue with someone over there.  They can usually tell you if it universal or not. 

Thanks for the tip.

I just sent you a private message. Did you get it? I was going to provide a link to a U.S. vendor who also is selling SONG OF THE SOUTH. Let me know if you'd like to try his website. It seems professional/reputable.

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2 hours ago, TopBilled said:

Disney made SONG OF THE SOUTH for kids and probably thought it was harmless. But people like Roger Ebert seemed to think that's what made it more damaging, because it could leave a racist impression on young minds.

I saw SOTS as a young kiddo and as a young adult, each time with my parents and each time on the big screen. Before each viewing, we had conversations about race and the time in which the film was made -- keeping both in context. I recall enjoying it as a youngster, singing along with "Zip A Dee Doo Dah" and being charmed by Uncle Remus. Upon my second viewing, I understood much more about race issues and appreciated it as perhaps a sign of the times. I was fortunate to have parents who laid the groundwork for intelligent viewing. Taking it in context helps when viewing, I think -- and allows one to appreciate the delightful performances.

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11 hours ago, janey said:

I saw SOTS as a young kiddo and as a young adult, each time with my parents and each time on the big screen. Before each viewing, we had conversations about race and the time in which the film was made -- keeping both in context. I recall enjoying it as a youngster, singing along with "Zip A Dee Doo Dah" and being charmed by Uncle Remus. Upon my second viewing, I understood much more about race issues and appreciated it as perhaps a sign of the times. I was fortunate to have parents who laid the groundwork for intelligent viewing. Taking it in context helps when viewing, I think -- and allows one to appreciate the delightful performances.

Thanks for sharing. Unfortunately your situation might be the exception, not the norm. 

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People seem to be implying that SOTS has been suppressed by Disney as a way of "protecting viewers" from the content of the film. That's naive, at best. Disney understands that many people will buy it if a DVD or Blu-Ray is released. However, they also believe that not enough copies will be sold to make up for the amount of negative publicity that will be generated by various racial groups, social media, and other "social justice" advocates. Would these people be justified in their outrage? Many will protest just to protest, but others will be genuine in their disappointment. Out of curiosity, how many posters that have watched this movie and posted about how the racial elements "aren't that bad" are black? Anyone? 

My personal position is that Disney should make the movie available, and if people want to buy it they can, and if they don't they don't. I've seen the movie, and wasn't impressed, but I'm not much of a fan of Disney or musicals, so I'm not the target audience. Just remember, Disney is a business before anything else, and every decision comes down to dollars and cents.

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Uh, didn't you start a thread on this topic before?

 

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10 minutes ago, LawrenceA said:

People seem to be implying that SOTS has been suppressed by Disney as a way of "protecting viewers" from the content of the film. That's naive, at best. Disney understands that many people will buy it if a DVD or Blu-Ray is released. However, they also believe that not enough copies will be sold to make up for the amount of negative publicity that will be generated by various racial groups, social media, and other "social justice" advocates. Would these people be justified in their outrage? Many will protest just to protest, but others will be genuine in their disappointment. Out of curiosity, how many posters that have watched this movie and posted about how the racial elements "aren't that bad" are black? Anyone? 

My personal position is that Disney should make the movie available, and if people want to buy it they can, and if they don't they don't. I've seen the movie, and wasn't impressed, but I'm not much of a fan of Disney or musicals, so I'm not the target audience. Just remember, Disney is a business before anything else, and every decision comes down to dollars and cents.

Thanks Larry. Regarding the last part of your first paragraph-- I don't think a person has to be black, obviously, to be offended. And a white person's opinion one way or the other should not be discounted just because they're white.

I'm half German-American, a quarter Irish-American and a quarter Slovenian-American. I can easily see that if one of the ethnic groups to which I belonged was presented in unflattering terms, how I might be offended. In fact I could easily be offended by how German people are presented in anti-Nazi war films where the German people seem gullible and under Hitler's control. Or how the Irish are stereotyped in many of James Cagney's films. I just take it for what it was at the time it was made, and how sensibilities have thankfully evolved.

You don't have to be black to know about xenophobia in classic Hollywood films.

Also I have two first cousins who are African-American that were adopted by my aunt and uncle. When I watch something like SONG OF THE SOUTH, I think of how they might relate to it. So as a white person I do not look at the film in any one way...and not all white people look at it in similar terms. That's the mistake I think Roger Ebert made in his indictments on the film. He tried to suggest how whites might perceive the film and how they shouldn't perceive the film. He tried to speak for all whites, which really doesn't cut it. I understand his wife was black, but that also did not give him any more authority to condemn the movie. I would like black people to speak for themselves about what the movie means to them, just like I speak for myself and not all whites when I describe what SONG OF THE SOUTH means to me when I watch it.

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9 minutes ago, jakeem said:

Uh, didn't you start a thread on this topic before?

 

Yes, we did talk about it before on another forum. Thanks for linking to that so people can check out the prior comments. I believe the earlier thread was locked because some posters started arguing. I started this thread here so we can put it into context as a musical, since people here are studying musicals and there has been little discussion of animated musicals or Disney musicals on this forum. The people here seem very friendly and I don't anticipate this thread being closed because of arguing.

Not sure why you seem to be implying we cannot have similar threads in different forums when I see many noir-related threads discussing the same noir films on several forums and sub-forums.

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5 minutes ago, TopBilled said:

Not sure why you seem to be implying we cannot have similar threads in different forums when I see many noir-related threads discussing the same noir films on several forums and sub-forums.

 Just thought the original thread was more than enough. But please proceed...

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I saw it once a few years ago. I'd say that it was a pretty good film overall, very smoothly handled, and Baskett was indeed excellent. Yes, its dated in racial regards. That really goes for any film with black characters in the 40s.  What I do think has had an effect on the film is that it is never left clear when it is set. It's supposed to be set in the reconstruction era after the Civil War, but I think some think it was set prior to the War, giving the impression that Remus was a "happy slave", thus causing more controversy. That said though, he is given a farther reaching emotional range than most black characters at the time, and I don't think the film was meant to be offesive in its time.

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3 hours ago, jakeem said:

 Just thought the original thread was more than enough. But please proceed...

Why would it be "enough" when we can progress the conversation in terms of musicals and Disney production values? My idea with this thread was to start with SONG OF THE SOUTH and branch out into a discussion about other musicals that might offend modern audiences. Someone in an earlier post referenced HALLELUJAH (1929). That's where I would like the conversation to go, not another debate about race in the movies per se, but about how films that were not originally considered offensive might now be no longer appropriate. We can cover depictions of sex, violence, other things besides race. The main point is that filmmakers' and audiences' sensibilities evolve over time.

I kind of wondered if you go on to other threads and tell those people their topics have been discussed before? After a point on these message boards, there is very little that has not already been discussed somewhere in some form.

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15 minutes ago, CinemaInternational said:

I saw it once a few years ago. I'd say that it was a pretty good film overall, very smoothly handled, and Baskett was indeed excellent. Yes, its dated in racial regards. That really goes for any film with black characters in the 40s.  What I do think has had an effect on the film is that it is never left clear when it is set. It's supposed to be set in the reconstruction era after the Civil War, but I think some think it was set prior to the War, giving the impression that Remus was a "happy slave", thus causing more controversy. That said though, he is given a farther reaching emotional range than most black characters at the time, and I don't think the film was meant to be offesive in its time.

My view, for what it's worth, is that Disney liked using old stories to appeal to new audiences. There was a nostalgia factor involved in using Joel Chandler Harris' stories. Disney himself might have enjoyed reading them as a child. I really do not think it was some huge conspiracy where Disney decided to take the material and use it to promote his own personal views of slavery. I doubt he was that calculating. He wanted to entertain a postwar audience. Did the same people complaining about the movie complain to Harris' estate about the stories being written in the first place? 

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I'll look forward to your November thread on whether TCM's Veterans Day marathon glamorizes war movies.

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