New ‘You Must Remember This’ Season Explores History of Racist Disney Cartoon
When the lineup for Disney’s new streaming service, was released last week, there were so many obscure titles on the list that even the most diehard fan was left wondering whether they really existed, or were just an elaborate prank conceived of by Disney CEO Bob Iger. (If anyone in the history of human existence seen a single frame of Fuzzbucket, Mr. Boogedy, or Sammy the Way-Out Seal, first of all, how, and second of all, why?) There was one relatively well-known film, however, that didn’t make the list, an omission that stuck out to many Disney fans: the 1946 animation/live-action hybrid Song of the South.
Song of the South is based on the 19th-century Uncle Remus stories, a collection of folktales featuring the trickster Brer Rabbit that were supposedly told by African-American slaves and compiled by white Southern writer Joel Chandler Harris. (There is debate among historians as to whether the stories were an authentic representation of African-American folklore tradition, and many black writers have accused Harris of re-appropriating slaves’ stories for his own financial gain.) The film tells the story of a young white boy named Johnny whose neglectful parents leave him to his own devices on his family’s Southern Reconstruction-era plantation. Johnny befriends Uncle Remus (James Baskett, who won a special Oscar for the role) a black man on the plantation who entertains him with stories of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Brer Bear, which are recreated in the film’s cartoon segments.
The complicated history and subsequent legacy of Song of the South is the subject of the latest season of Karina Longworth’s much-loved podcast You Must Remember This (now produced by Stitcher), which tells the long-forgotten stories of old Hollywood. As Longworth recounts in the first episode of this six-part season, which premiered on Tuesday, despite many of the film’s defenders claiming it was a “product of its time,” the film garnered backlash from many black activists immediately after its release. Most took aim at its stereotypical depiction of African-Americans, particularly the Uncle Remus character, who embodies what some have referred to as the “Magical Negro” stereotype. Song of the South was also criticized for presenting an idyllic, romanticized view of an American South that never was: the film got scathing reviews from many white male establishment critics such as Bosley Crowther at the New York Times, who wrote in an open letter to Disney that the “master-slave relation is so lovingly rendered in your yarn…that one might imagine you almost figure Abe Lincoln made a mistake.”
Such criticism, however, did not deter Disney from re-releasing the film four times between 1956 and 1986. Although it was never released on home video format, the company continues to capitalize off some of the content in the film to this day, most notably by including its signature song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” in sing-along compilations and by using it as the inspiration for its iconic theme park attraction Splash Mountain, which opened in 1989. Because the film has never been released on home video, it is now viewed in certain circles as something of a forbidden cult object. It has also become something of a political litmus test, with a handful of fans advocating for the film’s re-release and decrying the so-called “PC police’s” efforts to suppress it. More often than not, however, most people just haven’t heard of Song of the South at all, says Longworth: once she tells them the synopsis, “usually their jaws drop and they’re like ‘What?’ And then it’s like, ‘Why does this movie exist?,'” she told Rolling Stone in advance of this season’s premiere. For most, Song of the South is perhaps best known today as Disney’s “banned” film — though as Longworth explains on her podcast, it has never actually been banned at all.
So how and why did Song of the South acquire a reputation as the movie the Disney company wants you to forget about? How did it get made despite the considerable backlash it generated, even in 1946? Perhaps more importantly, why was it re-released four times — and how does its cultural legacy continue to linger to this day? Rolling Stone spoke with Longworth to discuss her research.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What inspired you to do a season about Song of the South? Was it timed to Disney Plus?
Not really, no. Actually I finished my part of the writing and recording in June. Basically what happened was my contract to make the podcast ended in January and I wasn’t sure I would ever make a podcast again. It’s just really hard to do, and I just didn’t want to commit to anything until I had a really good idea. One of the things I was [helping] to develop a television show set in black Hollywood of the 20th century. So I was doing research and one of the ideas I stumbled across was about Song of the South and the making of the film. In just learning a little bit about that, I learned that the screenplay was written by a white Communist who was then blacklisted [Maurice Rapf]. And I thought, “Wow, that is such an interesting thing I never would’ve thought. I wonder if there are more things like that.” That’s how a lot of these seasons come together: I learn one thing, I wonder if there’s anything else that has been forgotten about or that no one knows, and I try to see if I can chain them together to form a necklace. Then I had to make the episodes.
Can you summarize what this film’s reputation among Disney buffs and film buffs?
I don’t think most film buffs even know what it is. If they do, maybe they’ve just heard of it as a Disney film that’s been “banned.”….The people who have heard about it are people my age who remember it coming out during one of its re-releases or they’re people who are super into Disney. And for them it’s mixed. Certainly there are people who are super into Disney completism who want this movie to be available, whether they’ve seen it or not. And a lot of people have only read about it. They’ve seen clips from the “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” scene because Disney has recycled that scene in VHS releases and on TV, those things are available. They don’t know that two-thirds of the movie is live-action and set on this plantation.
For those who don’t know about this movie, can you go over why it was pulled from circulation?
Honestly, Disney has not been very transparent about why it was pulled from circulation. I don’t think they even really acknowledged it was pulled from circulation until they came out and said, “Everything is gonna be released on Disney Plus except this one thing.” It was made and released in 1946. Then it was re-released theatrically four additional times: in 1956, in 1972, in 1981, and in 1986. It was never released on home video commercially in the United States. But in 1989 the Disneyland ride Splash Mountain opened which is based on the movie, and even after not officially releasing the video itself on home video, Disney has recycled what they find acceptable about the movie and recycled them, like sing-alongs and shown them on the Disney Channel and things like that.
Can you provide, like, a Cliff’s Notes version of why the movie is problematic?
Well, I think some people would say it’s not. My husband showed the movie to some members of his family who are conservative Christians in middle America and they were like, “What’s the big deal?” But I personally think it’s problematic because it came out in 1946 after the NAACP, beyond a point where they had started protesting in Hollywood and actively advocating for studios to do a better job of representing African-Americans. It was after Hattie McDaniel [who also appears in Song of the South] had become the first African American woman to win an Oscar. It was after Lena Horne had signed a contract with MGM with a promise they would turn her into the first black starlet to be given the same star push as a white starlet. This had all happened, and Disney still made a movie in which the black characters, although at last one of them has a larger part than most black actors ever had in a white Hollywood movie, are still servants and treated as inferior to white characters, and are shown to have no purpose beyond serving white characters.
You make the point that the film wasn’t as much “a product of the times” as its defenders claim — given that, why do you think it was made in the first place?
In the 1940s, Disney assumed the people protesting were disingenuous and a small portion of the ticket-buying populace. Disney was coming off this period where the animators had gone on strike, and [Walt] had become extremely paranoid about Communism. He assumed Afircan-Americans had been brainwashed by Communists, so he didn’t take that kind of protest seriously, and he didn’t think it spoke for his ticket-buyers, who I think he assumed were mostly white. A big shock to me was seeing the reviews by white reviewers in 1946, particularly in the New York Times and New Yorker, both of which accused Disney of wishing the Emancipation Proclamation had never existed.
Given that criticism, why was it re-released four times?
Because of the way politics ebb and flow. First of all, it’s not the only movie to be re-released multiple times — that was how Disney made money off its catalog, and particularly during this period of the mid-1950s to the end of the 1980s. They did release new movies, but most were not as commercially successful as the re-releases of the old movies. Obviously, re-releasing Song of the South was not as successful as re-releasing Cinderella, but as far as why they kept re-releasing [Song of the South], they did it when it was politically and financially advantageous to do so, and they didn’t when it wasn’t. So for instance, they didn’t release it during the Civil Rights Movement — they didn’t re-release it during 1956, then they re-released it in 1972. You’re years into the Nixon presidency, the country is taking a sharp turn away from what is perceived as the failures of the 1960s and the violence of the activist movement at that time. At the same time, Hollywood is finding two new revenue streams: one being blaxploitation, made specifically for the people in urban centers left over from white flight, and movies like Dirty Harry, which appeal to white people who feel they have been pushed out due to that quote-unquote chaos. There is some criticism [of the movie] after the 1981 re-release, but it’s even easier to ignore because the country has moved much further to the right by then after Reagan.
Why is it ultimately pulled in 1986?
As I said, Disney has never really made any commentary about that and they never really acknowledged that it had been. My understanding it was from [former CEO] Michael Eisner taking over the company and instituting a new corporate culture, in which you can’t release anything that is at all potentially divisive.
Why did Disney build Splash Mountain, which is based on Song of the South?
Well, they started building it in the early Eighties. They opened it in 1989, but it takes a long time to build a Disneyland ride. They started working on the concept after the 1981 very profitable re-release.
Why hasn’t Disney chosen to revamp the ride after pulling it from distribution, as it has with any number of other attractions?
You’d have to ask Disney that. I would say that most people do not know this movie exists, and don’t know the ride references back to the film at all. And the ride itself — the whole last episode is all about Splash Mountain, so I don’t want to say too much about it — but the ride itself is sort of a bastardized version of the film, so it’s easy for Disney to distance itself from it, but it’d also be extremely easy for them to rebrand it. They wouldn’t have to do much, just take out a few animatronics and change the music.
Do you have an opinion as to whether or not Song of the South should be re-released?
If I was running Disney, I would release it within the context of a documentary or something like that, basically saying all of the things I’m saying in this podcast season. I don’t think it should necessarily just be released on Blu-Ray or whatever. I think you do need to make a historical statement while you’re making it available. This is the same thing I say when people ask me if I think Birth of a Nation should be banned. It’s like, no I don’t think it should be banned, it’s an important pat of cinema history, but it should only be shown in the context of its racism and we should be completely honest about D.W. Griffith, and the fact that eh didn’t invent a lot of the stuff he gets credit for inventing. He was recycling and putting into one movie innovations that had been around before and started by different people. So when it comes to movies like this, there should be an educational component surrounding them.
Do you think Disney should take the approach Warner Bros. did with its own problematic cartoons? [Some Looney Tunes cartoons from the 1930s and 1940s featuring politically incorrect imagery and jokes have been included on DVD compilations with a disclaimer decrying the “inexcusable” content, while arguing for its preservation for historical reasons.]
Sure. I think with Song of the South you need more than a single on-screen disclaimer, but sure.
I kept thinking of Green Book throughout the episode, in part because it suffers from the same problems in a lot of ways that Song of the South does, and in part because of the conversation it generated after the Oscars.
In the third episode, which I just edited, I talk a lot about the Oscars and their history of wanting to seem like they’re good liberals, but sometimes the actions that they do coming from that place in retrospect look pretty bad in regards to racism. To a lot of people when Green Book won Best Picture, it was sort of a face palm moment because first of all, quality-wise, how could that be best picture of the year, and second of all, don’t you understand that this is not just a movie about a black guy and a white boy who had a friendship, and we should be at a point where we can talk about these things in a more sophisticated and nuanced way. But obviously that was not what many Oscar voters thought. Certainly people didn’t view Song of the South as a PC fantasy, people viewed it as a nostalgic fantasy for a time and people and condition that never existed. I think Disney promoted it as a historical film, but as we’ve discussed, for a lot of reasons it’s a completely muddled depiction of real history.
What do you hope people primarily take away from this season?
With any season I do, people don’t always recognize that this stuff we’re talking about in the present-day is stuff people talk about for a long time, and you really see that with this specific story. The same conversations we’re having today about who gets to tell people’s stories and who gets to profit off them and what the correct ways of doing that are, are things we were talking about in 1946.
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