Movies: Song of the South

My husband has been telling me about this movie since we first started collecting Disney movies to play on our VCR. (We buy DVDs these days, but rarely get Disney movies anymore.) He had seen Song of the South on TV on “The Wonderful World of Disney”; I hadn’t even heard of it. (There were many movies I had never heard of – he says I was culturally deprived.)

As each classic Disney movie came out on video, we waited for Song of the South to hit the shelves. But it never happened; finally we realized it just wasn’t going to be released. There are all kinds of rumors about why it isn’t going to be released – or alternatively, that it is going to be released (always next year or the year after). The reasons for not releasing it have to do with the racial stereotypes it portrays, and apparently it has been controversial in this regard since its initial box office release.

My husband decries this sort of political correctness, pointing out that the black people in the movie are portrayed very positively. I’ve read similar opinions on websites regarding the movie. I also read one comment, from an “Anonymous African-American” who guesses that all such comments were written by white people, who have no idea why the racial stereotypes in the movie are so offensive. Unfortunately, this person doesn’t try to explain why they are.

Finally, today, I got to watch the movie. My husband has been downloading lots of TV shows and movies from the internet, and burning them to DVD. Apparently Disney had no problem releasing Song of the South in other countries, where the racial history of our own country does not provoke such controversy. These have been turned into bootleg versions of the movie, and Disney has (at least according to wikipedia) chosen not to take any legal action.

As this seems to be the only way to see the movie, and Disney evidently is more concerned about not officially releasing the movie than preventing it from being distributed, I was happy enough to sit down with my sons to finally watch it (my husband had to sleep before going to work for the night). My younger son was bored through the initial live-action sequences, but started enjoying it once some animation appeared.

Overall, my reaction to the movie is to wonder, what is all the fuss about? There is no indication of slavery; I take it that the movie takes place after the Civil War. The black people clearly have subservient positions on the plantation, but that is pretty much a fact of history. I don’t see the movie as celebrating the fact, only using it as background for telling some stories that were well known and loved long before Walt Disney decided to turn them into a motion picture.

I have to admit that I also fail to see that I missed such a significant bit of American culture by not seeing the movie before. The story is OK but not fantastic. The Br’er Rabbit stories are entertaining and well-animated, and they contain lessons that Uncle Remus is trying to teach young Johnny, but I can hardly say they’re among the best animated stories I’ve seen.

So for me, the most interesting aspect of the movie continues to be the controversy surrounding it, rather than the movie itself. I found here what appears to be a good summation of the issues, both what things in the movie are considered offensive by some, and why they should not be seen as a reason to keep the movie from being seen. I’ve always thought it makes more sense to see a movie or read a book, and then have a good discussion of the problematic aspects of the work, than to lock it away as unacceptable.

But as the Anonymous African-American pointed out, I am white and don’t know what it’s like to experience life as a black person. I would be interested in hearing a black person’s evaluation of the movie, and why it should or shouldn’t be shown.

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2 Responses to Movies: Song of the South

  1. cindyinsd says:

    I haven’t seen that movie since I was a little kid, Pauline. My husband feels about it as your husband does. When it came out, it was really a special thing.

    It was the first time (far as I know) that live people had been paired with animation. The colors were brighter than we’d seen before. It was a beautiful piece of work, and kind of a ground-breaker in its time. So I think that’s why we have such fond memories of it.

    As far as the stereotypes, sometimes I think people are maybe too sensitive. I had a friend who came over to study with me. (We were both in nursing school.) She was black, and she got really offended when I offered her some watermelon. Believe it or not, I didn’t know this was a stereotype–that black people had been portrayed as loving watermelon. I just wanted some (I love watermelon), and thought it would be kind of rude not to offer her some. 😆 Oops!

  2. “There is no indication of slavery; I take it that the movie takes place after the Civil War.”

    I’m curious what makes you assume this. I think the film is ambiguous on this point. If it truly took place after the Civil War in Georgia, you would have seen the devastating effects of the war, or at least some indication that it was set in the Reconstruction period. There’s none of that.

    When the film was first released, many who saw it assumed that it took place in the antebellum South, and there is honestly very little in the film that contradicts this.

    In any case, the film presents an idealized picture, no matter when it takes place, and one that doesn’t quite jibe with reality.

    As for the woman above who said her friend was offended when she offered her watermelon, I think this illustrates an important point. Her black friend was aware of the stereotype, whether she wanted to be or not. As a white person, however, you was able to go through life unaware of this stereotype.

    Very few white people are racists with a capital “R.” But most white people are able to live their lives without thinking much about racial issues or being affected by them most of the time. The same cannot be said for black people.

    That said, watermelon is delicious and no one should be offended when someone offers to share food with them.

    I agree that “Song of the South” shouldn’t be locked away where no one can see it. I think we’re all better off if we face issues head on and talk about them. I just watched this movie again (hadn’t seen it since I was a kid), and I think there’s a lot that’s great about it. Unfortunately, I think what most of its detractors say about it is true, too.

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