Friday, July 1, 2011

Song of the South - Should It Be Released on DVD?

I am going to wade into the controversy of Song of the South, probably to my chagrin. However, I don’t know that you can discuss this film intelligently without speaking about Disney’s decision to keep it hidden away. So if you’ve made up your mind on the topic, quit reading now.

Bob Iger, CEO of the Walt Disney Company, recently stated that he had watched Song of the South again, and upon this new viewing he had decided that the material in the film was not suitable for modern audiences. I have two problems with that statement. First, I don’t know that I want Bob Iger deciding what is or is not suitable for me. Second, I don’t know what movie he was watching, but I think Song of the South is important for audiences to see.

The main complaints I have seen about the film are that it does not portray a realistic relationship between slaves and their owners in the South and that the African Americans in the film are stereotypical slave portrayals. Both of these things are absolutely true. However, they are both irrelevant to the question of whether people should see the film.

How is the portrayal of slaves in Song of the South any different than that in Gone With the Wind? If the issue is that of dialect or mannerisms, then why is Song of the South being singled out? There are dozens of films out there that feature slaves portrayed in the same way, yet there is not outcry when Gone With the Wind gets another DVD or Bluray release.

As for the issue of how plantation life is depicted in the film, it’s a valid point. I doubt that most plantations featured slaves who did nothing but sit around and tell stories. I also doubt that Uncle Remus would have gotten away with some of the things he does in the movie. That does not mean that we should not be able to see the portrayal, though.

As I stated in my review of the film, this is a turning point in the history of the Disney studio. It’s not a film that would be acceptable to mass audiences today, and I understand that. But the importance of the film should not be kept from Disney fans who want to connect with the history of the studio.

I will freely state that I am not African-American, so this does not affect me in the same way as those of you who have had to live through discrimination in your life. My stance on this is not to say that others who do not want the film released are wrong in their reasoning or emotion. My feeling, though, is that this movie should be available to those who want it.

It should not be a widely marketed release, an family movie or anything of that nature. Disney should be able to release the film digitally or through some kind of special DVD release that would allow them to place the film in its proper context. Do it tastefully, but release the film. I think if Disney explained it that way, that this was a way to keep the company’s history alive, not exploiting the actors or the situation for a quick buck, then it would be accepted.

What do you think?


  1. It seems to have less to do with the message and more to do with the messenger.
    When Bob Iger says "not suitable for modern audiences," he means "not suitable for the modern Disney brand and its interests," which is a very real concern.
    Disney occupies a very delicate space in the U.S. (multi-billion dollar cute, cuddly, family friendly mega corporation) and has very different responsibilities from other corporations and movie studios. Gone With The Wind comes from a studio that bears a different kind of social responsibility than that of Disney. Iger takes this very seriously (listen to his interview on Harvard Business Review) and, if he was just going to play a numbers game, controlling the damage caused by leaving it in the box is far easier than controlling the potential damage (damage to corporate business interests) of taking it out.
    This movie should come out, it must come out as it is a significant piece of Disney and film history. If I were me (which I am) I would want the film released. If I were Disney today (which I am not) I wouldn't let it leave the building.

  2. While I'm loathe to enter this particular argument—half of the problem is exemplified by what's been said here already: "[the film] does not portray a realistic relationship between slaves and their owners in the South..."

    Well, the movie takes place in the 1880s, so the African-American characters—however stereotypical—are nevertheless not slaves. When Uncle Remus is offended at his cruel treatment by Johnny's family, he packs up and leaves the farm. Were he not free, he couldn't.

    In the absence of the film's general availability, the internet meme grew up in the 1990s that the film's suppression was due to its portrayal of happy "slaves." As long as the misconception is this powerful, it doesn't matter whether anyone has seen the movie or not.

    Me—I think it's an enjoyable, but extremely dated movie that could nevertheless be reissued without problems if it were preceded with an unskippable, Walt Disney Treasures-style warning about some character behavior.

  3. I don't know if Ryan Kilpatrick (sorry, I'm probably spelling his name wrong, but mean the guy who runs this blog) will see this comment now that this isn't the latest post anymore, but I hope he does. Here are my thoughts:

    1. Correct me if I'm wrong (I haven't seen the film) but I thought the African-American characters were NOT slaves and that this film takes place after the abolition of slavery in America.

    2. Personally, I think it's hypocritcal that they won't release this film but HAVE released Dumbo (where African-American workers sing about how they are "roustabouts" who throw their money away) and Peter Pan (which has stereotypical caricatures of Native Americans). It's obviously about Disney's image. Dumbo and Peter Pan may be just as racist as "Song of the South", but they don't have a racist REPUTATION, which brings me to my third point...

    3. How is this different from "Gone With The Wind"? Because this is a Disney film. Disney has built its marketing stategy on presenting itself as wholesome and wonderful, so they're understandably TERRIFIED of offending anyone. Fairly or not, the bad press from releasing this film would hurt Disney's squeaky clean image, and that's not a sacrifice they're willing to make.
    For that matter, if there are people who don't want this released but have no problem with "Gone With The Wind", it's probably because they have higher expectations of Disney. They expect Disney to be all about kid-friendly innocence. I would say that's not really fair, but it's actually Disney's own fault because, again, they've deliberately cultivated that image.

  4. Okay, I'm a couple months late reading this, but I feel strongly about this subject, so I'll post anyway.
    I watched a pirated copy of this film (I'm assuming you did, too) and for the life of me I can't see what's so patently offensive about it.
    Yes, blacks take a subservient role to whites. That was simply the way it was in the post-slavery era (and 1946, for that matter). What would have been ridiculous would have been to have a wise-cracking Uncle Remus who put the whites in their place.
    I've also read that some find the film offensive because it portrays blacks as "happy" in their situation. I simply didn't see this. Yes, they were singing as they went to work in the fields. That's historically accurate--it's where we got the blues. But I didn't see any blacks portrayed as "happy" about their condition. Did Uncle Remus smile and laugh? Sure, but is that wrong? Are we to believe that blacks in the slavery and post-slavery era never smiled or laughed, despite their horrendous conditions?
    I also agree that this film is no more offensive than Dumbo, particularly Dumbo's portrayal of the black crows that tease the elephant. Song of the South's portrayal of blacks is far less offensive than that of some of the early Silly Symphonies which have been released.
    Finally, let's focus on the positives about this film. Who is the hero? Not the rich white people, but the poor black sharecropper. Far from promoting racism, this film promotes racial harmony, which was remarkable at the time it was released. Who does the rich little white boy want to spend his time with? Uncle Remus and the poor children. Is that something to be ashamed of?
    Let's not forget that James Baskett received an Academy Award for his portrayal of Uncle Remus. And this film produced one of Disney's most memorable songs. I'd wager that "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah" is as much a part of the Disney music library as "When You Wish Upon a Star."
    Finally, regarding the potential negative consequences to the Disney company--this film has been released in the past. It was last released in theaters as recently as 1986. Now, while 1986 may seem like a different lifetime to a 25-year-old, it wasn't all that long ago. This wasn't in the era of segregation. It was 20 years after the Civil Rights Act passed. Unlike in 1946, in 1986 blacks were fully participating in politics. There were many positive portrayals of blacks in movies and TV (this was the height of the Cosby Show). In what was arguably the "modern" era, the film did respectable at the box office and did not generate protests or boycotts of Disney.
    Most of the "controversy" about Song of the South today is because no one has seen it. People take offense to a film they haven't seen, based on something they heard from somebody that heard it from someone else that read about it on the internet. Rather than censor itself, Disney should release Song of the South. I like to think that in the second decade of the 21st century, race relations have come far enough along that we can have an intelligent discussion about this film and what it does and does not stand for.

  5. Great discussion guys. Thanks for posting. I was remiss in writing, and yes, David, you're correct that the African Americans are not slaves necessarily, but you have to feel that they were former slaves.

    I think my point in writing this is that the film is important to the history of the company, and while not necessarily the best example of their filmmaking, it is something that historians (such as David) should have easy access to.

    I get the idea of the general public not needing this, but some sort of special release as a historical artifact is what I feel is needed.


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