Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The "Song of the South" Problem

One family-oriented day at Disneyland, Helen and I were trying to convince my parents to ride Splash Mountain with us. My dad was game, but my mom wasn't interested. Not that my mom is one of those moms who avoids rides while telling everyone else to have a good time. She'd done plenty of rides with us. I guess she was just looking for a break.

"But it's based on your movie, mom," I pleaded with her. No sale. So it ended up being me, my dad, and Helen taking the plunge.

As you stand in line for Splash Mountain, signs hung throughout the cave facade introduce you to the storyline that the ride will complete. "It was one of those zip-a-dee doo-da days..." says the first sign. While you're floating along on the ride, the story continues, acted out by animatronic puppets. It's difficult to actually follow the story while you're on the ride; too much echo from the character voices, too much splashing water sounds. But apparently, Helen was taking note.

After the ride, we rejoined my mom and proceeded to the next attraction (probably Haunted Mansion). Helen was reviewing the Splash Mountain story in her head, and noticed a gap.

"You've seen the movie, right?" she asked my mom. "How do Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear catch Br'er Rabbit in the first place?"

Casually, my mom answered, "They make a tar baby."

Helen and I reacted visibly and audibly. Woah! Holy crap! You can't just say that. Did anybody hear that? Don't look!


"I thought your mom was cool. And not racist," said my friend Paul.

I was on the phone with him about trying to track down a copy of Song of the South as a birthday gift for my mom. Paul, a fervent film aficionado, possesses the well-honed skill of tracking down foreign, obscure and rare films, and so was the only person I would turn to in this situation.

Song of the South is many things. It's the very first movie to integrate (so to speak) live-action actors with animated characters (with the possible exceptions of the Alice Comedies and The Three Caballeros). It's a movie that's unavailable on all home video formats in the United States. And yes, it's racist.

It's also an effective entertainment.

For the record, my mom is cool, and is not racist. It just so happens that she saw Song of the South when she was young, and it made an impression on her. Because it's an amusing bit of filmmaking. Watch this first clip, and see if you don't want to know how it ends in the second clip:

As you can tell, the voices are caricatured, the dialect is caricatured, and Uncle Remus acts the happy little slave with not a care in the world. And that just scratches the surface of the film's embedded racism.
From "folklorist" Patricia A. Turner:
The days on the plantation located in "the United States of Georgia" begin and end with unsupervised Blacks singing songs about their wonderful home as they march to and from the fields. Disney and company made no attempt to to render the music in the style of the spirituals and work songs that would have been sung during this era. They provided no indication regarding the status of the Blacks on the plantation.
And there's plenty more. At every turn, the black characters in the film present an image of gleeful subservience to the white characters. They are stripped of dignity and culture, when they aren't being flat out ignored.
Disney no doubt wishes this movie didn't exist. But it does, and it puts them in a delicate situation. On the one hand, they have a classic film, highly regarded in many respects, but equally (and rightly) condemned for others. And there's no way to cut the movie to remove the racist elements from it, so thoroughly is it saturated with racism. Disney knows that any further profit from this movie is ill-gotten. They've strip-mined it for all its useable elements (the song "Zip-a-dee-do-da," the Splash Mountain ride), and have otherwise kept the film proper locked in their vaults since 1986. And while I understand Disney's reasoning for keeping the movie hidden and essentially denied, it's my opinion that they're making a mistake by denying the public access to it. Ironically, they're stuck in a tar baby themselves.
According to various sources on the internet, the film has been released on VHS and laserdisc in various European regions. But so far I have not been able to secure a copy for my mom. Disney's practice of keeping the movie unreleased is essentially their way of implying that they know what's best for my mom. And when my sweet, innocent mom blurts out phrases like "tar baby" in one of their parks, you can understand their concern. It's exactly that kind of subtle programming in movies and TV shows that can skew a person's vocabulary toward the inadvertently racist. Just ask John McCain.
But does that mean the movie should be tossed down the Memory Hole, forgotten for all time, erased from history? On the contrary, I think keeping the movie in the collective conscious, making it available for study and critical examination, is the way to keep people educated about its technical highs and cultural lows. Once contextualized, it's a brilliant jumping off point for exploring the times in which a movie like this could get made, and how far we have or haven't come since then. It's a landmark film, and it's worth discussing. You don't bury something like that, you pore through it.
Song of the South deserves a place next to Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will as a tremendously good mistake. (Consider for a moment that some of the most progressive achievements in technical filmmaking have been in the service of some of the most regressive and destructive movements in human history.) Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will have not been buried. They are readily available, and are analyzed by film students, history students and social science students every semester. Of course, Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will were not produced by studios with an image of family entertainment to uphold.
Which is why I think the solution for Disney lies in disowning the movie altogether. Literally disowning it; as in, relinquishing ownership. Put it in the public domain. Refuse to make any further profit from it. Allow film societies and academics to care for it. Put it in a museum. Make it available for those who wish to explore it.
In defense of my mom (and John McCain), there doesn't seem to be a universal agreement on whether or not "tar baby" is a racial epithet. The term doesn't seem to exist previous to the publication of the Uncle Remus stories, and was therefor likely originated by author Joel Chandler Harris for specific use in his own stories. Taken at face value, it is nothing more than the figure of a young human made out of tar, for the purposes of trapping someone.
That being said, it's awful damn similar to other racial epithets, and you'd be a fool not to understand how. Furthermore, when placed in the context of an overtly racist movie, and an overtly racist book (penned by a white author), one should realize that using the term is likely to put you in, well, a sticky situation.