Comparative Review: 2 New Books on Disney’s Song of the South
Coincidently, two books have just been published almost simultaneously that go into detail about the Disney Studios' suppressed 1946 feature Song of the South. They are:
Disney’s Most Notorious Film: Race, Convergence, and the Hidden Histories of Song of the South, by Jason Sperb. Illustrated. Austin, TX, University of Texas Press, December 2012, hardcover $55.00 (294 pages).
Who’s Afraid of the Song of the South? and Other Forbidden Disney Stories, by Jim Korkis. Foreword by Floyd Norman. Orlando, FL, Theme Park Press, December 2012, trade paperback $19.95 (276 pages), Kindle $7.99.
Although very similar in subject matter, they are very different in theme. Disney's Most Notorious Film, from the University of Texas Press and filled with scholarly footnotes, starts out with the preconception that Disney's combination live-action/animation feature Song of the South, made in 1946 when Walt Disney was very much in charge of his studio, was a blatantly condescending racist film, an embarrassment that the studio has been trying to cover up while continuing to cash in on as much as possible. In other words, the book is an academic exposé. Who's Afraid of the Song of the South?, by a longtime Disney studio employee and fan, argues that it is not racist, and that the Disney company should stop suppressing it today and release it on home video. "Through interviews with many of the artists and animators who created Song of the South, and through his own extensive research, Korkis delivers both the definitive behind-the-scenes history of the film and a balanced analysis of its cultural impact." (publisher's blurb).
Which author is right? Arguably, they both are. Both cite the facts of the controversy correctly. Where they differ is in their interpretation of those facts. Song of the South has been an extremely controversial feature film for over sixty years, and probably many of its strongest proponents and detractors today have never actually seen it.
Disney's Most Notorious Film uses the more biased and arguable rhetoric. "Song of the South depicts plantation life in the late nineteenth century – a time marked by unimaginable cruelty...” (page 1). Most historians agree that the plantation period in the American South lasted from before the Civil War until its end in 1865. After that was the Reconstruction to 1877, followed by the long "post-Reconstruction". It is this period that Song of the South is set in, not the plantation period. The book later acknowledges this when it goes into greater detail. "The movie's setting is similarly incoherent. It is a supposedly post-Reconstruction set within a seemingly pre-Civil War South. The lack of a clear historical context reiterates how the film could be read either way. [...] Precisely because it is so historically and thematically vague, Song of the South does give the impression of a master-slave relationship, even if it's not literally a story about slaves." (page 56).
It is true that Disney tried to play it both ways to please everyone, and ended up with a setting so vague that on its 1946 release, many critics thought that it depicted the pre-Civil War slave period. According to Wikipedia, "The Hays Office had asked Disney to 'be certain that the frontispiece of the book mentioned establishes the date in the 1870s,' however, the final film carried no such statement." (There is an extremely brief scene in Johnny's father's Atlanta newspaper office with a 1901 wall calendar, but it goes by so quickly that even viewers primed to look for it may miss it.) The African-Americans seen singing happily on the plantation could seem to be slaves, though they are supposed to be post-Reconstruction sharecroppers -- former slaves allowed to farm a small patch on a plantation for payment of a portion of their crops as rent. As freedmen, the former slaves were theoretically free to come and go, and did not live in "a time marked by unimaginable cruelty"; although it was certainly not as idyllic as Disney wished to imply. As the movie shows as a major plot point, Johnny's mother, a member of the White aristocracy, makes it clear that Uncle Remus is no longer welcome on the plantation, and he leaves without any place to go, helpless to protest. (The movie leaves unclear whether Uncle Remus is supposed to own his home. The implication is that he is a sharecropper on what is legally plantation land.) As a side note, social conditions for other non-"Whites" in the South and in the rest of America were not idyllic, either. In 1915 Leo Frank, an American Jew, was lynched in Atlanta. Chicago had a race riot in 1919.
Sperb cites Song of the South's controversy and its disappointing box office upon its 1946 release as showing that "early audiences rejected both its racial insensitivities, in the wake of World War II, and its low budget aesthetic, on the heels of more polished full length animated productions like Snow White (1937) and Dumbo (1941).” (page 2) Many African-American groups such as the NAACP and the National Negro Congress, as well as notable individuals, began high-publicity protests of Song of the South before its release, and doubtlessly boycotted the film. But how many White audiences "rejected ... its racial insensitivities?" Sperb is correct that many audiences were disappointed that Song of the South was not fully animated as Disney's pre-war features had been.
However, upon its theatrical rereleases in 1972, 1973, 1980, and 1986, Song of the South was much more popular and profitable than during its original release. Sperb quotes many reviews and box office statistics from this period, but analyzes them as reflecting the lack of well-publicized African-American protests against the rereleases, the post-Civil Rights era backlash in White America (which he finds also racist, but more vaguely so), and the uncritical adulation of the public in general and Disney fans in particular for anything made prior to Walt's death in 1966 and the studio's drop in quality after that. The first is probably true; the others more arguable. Possibly the general public just did not obsess upon the film's more racist aspects and found it overall more enjoyable than not.
Sperb cites all the ways that corporate Disney has continued to merchandize the Song of the South gestalt while locking the film in its vaults since 1986. "The popular audiocassette and later CD collections Classic Disney (1995) and Disney's Greatest Hits (2001) made great use of 'Zip-a-De-Doo-Dah' and other Song of the South tunes. [...] In addition to repackaging ‘Zip-a-De-Doo-Dah,’ this collection [Classic Disney] also recycled ‘Everybody Has a Laughing Place’ on volume 2 and the title song, ‘Song of the South,’ on volume 5. [...] But the continued recycling of Baskett's original version is only the beginning of Disney's exploitation. There are numerous 'authorized' covers of 'Zip-a-De-Doo-Dah,' such as the R&B singer Patti Austin's version, which was released on the album Disney's Music from the Park (1996), or the version by Miley Cyrus, aka 'Hannah Montana,' which appeared on the album Disneymania 4 (2006). The song's presence throughout the Disney empire is impossible to map fully today." (pages 186-187).