I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the gone-but-not-forgotten Disney film, The Song of the South. There are a couple reasons for this:
One–I was watching some of the collections in the Walt Disney Treasures series a while back, and some of the special features open with a disclaimer from Leonard Maltin about how the cartoons were made in a different cultural environment. Rather than bury the cartoons, Maltin encourages viewers to use them as gateways to conversation about changes in American culture.
Two–I’ve been reading Jim Korkis’s book, Who’s Afraid of the Song of the South? and Other Forbidden Disney Stories.
I’ll be among the first to admit that I tend to see the world through Disney-colored glasses (if I can coin a phrase), but I struggle to see why this film should be so marred in controversy, and in light of some of the other “questionable” cartoons collected in the Walt Disney Treasures, I don’t see why the film can’t be distributed for educational purposes at the very least.
It’s a beautiful film, and one that is recognized for its technical achievements. It was the Disney studio’s first major foray into live action production, and it was the first film that seemlessly blends together technicolor film and animation, paving the way for Mary Poppins and other films.
Its inherent flaw is that The Song of the South doesn’t make clear what time period it is portraying, which leads people to assume that it’s about happy slaves, which isn’t historically accurate. The film is actually set during the Reconstruction and the African Americans who work on the plantation (perhaps a bit of an anachronism) are all free. It is difficult to faithfully capture the heart of Harris’ stories without taking a few CYA measure to make sure the film will be well-received. Korkis suggests (and I have to agree with him) that this major flaw is the result of Walt not taking into consideration that people will take a live-action film as a real, bonafide, authentic portrayal of the time period and neglected to take appropriate measures.
Iger has said that Disney won’t ever rerelease the film in the US. Perhaps his future replacement will reconsider, given that, again according to Korkis, there’s an online petition that already has “tens of thousands of signatures.” Clearly, there is an interest.
So let me just come out and say it, having seen the film–it’s not a racist film. There is no harm being portrayed about any group of people in the entire film. If we can get over the politics and down to the heart of the film, it’s one of the most integrated films of the era. A lot can be learned about relationships from a close read of the film. Korkis poses the argument that part of the reason for the controversy comes in response to the first draft of the film’s screenplay–one that was actually racist–and not from a single viewing of the final product (the film did receive mixed reviews, probably because the seed of distaste had already been planted–I question the objectivity of these reviews).
The controversy of the film is also indicative of the era of the film’s release. Perhaps it’s time to consider rethinking the controversy in the interest of furthering interest in Disney history? After all, in the Disneyfied versions of stories, kids are going to remember Splash Mountain before they remember The Song of the South or any of Harris’s original stories.