Thursday, September 15, 2011

"Headed For A Lil' Bit O'Trouble" - Disney Loose End #10: "Song of the South"

OK, let's just get it right on the table right away: Yes, "Song of the South" is a racially problematic film. And there are a few scenes that are downright weird and uncomfortable.

Having finally watched the film, it is absolutely understandable why Disney doesn't quite know what to do with it. Disney's usual method of dealing with the inconvenient spiky bits in the cotton candy of their films is to cut them right out. Unfortunately, there's no way to cut out the controversial portions in "Song" without altering the film beyond comprehension. And so, "Song of the South" was put on "permanent retirement" after it's anniversary re-release in 1986.

"Song of the South" quickly became the forbidden fruit of animation fans. I'd never ever get a chance to watch it, so I ran on what little information I could get out of animation history books. And nearly all of the books agreed on one thing: The animated portions of the film are fabulous, and probably the best animation to come out of the studio's features around World War Two. But the live-action portions are so inexcusably racist, they will melt your face off.

Well, what the history books don't tell you about those same live-action portions is this: Aside from being racially problematic*, they are also really boring. Really and truly and astonishingly boring.

The only bright spot in the live-action segments is the character of Uncle Remus himself. Warm and grandfatherly, his relationship with the unforgivably annoying child characters is very believable and sweet. The film picks up once he enters the story, and he leads us into the film's big "Holy Sh*t" Moment, about fifteen minutes in.

For this is where the animation begins, and it does so in a moment of... I can honestly and non-sarcastically call it Disney Magic. There are three animated stories in all, each with a signature song that I was surprised to already know all the words to. Disney may have Vaulted "Song of the South" for good, but they have lost no love for the songs nor the animated characters. (This is as good a time as any to admit Splash Mountain may be among my favorite rides if I have to choose.)

The animation is lively and gorgeous, and what's especially interesting about the animation is the fact that it doesn't really feel like anything else Disney was doing at the time. The humor and characterization both have much more in common with what you'd see in contemporary Looney Tunes, and there are scenes in the film that are directly referenced in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit". Speaking of, the moments when live-action and animated characters interact are still something truly special to see. Indeed, the only bad thing I can say about the animation here is that there is far, far too little of it.

The animated sequences are the reason why one should go through all the trouble of finding a way to watch "Song of the South". The cultural kerfuffle over the film has, sadly, overshadowed it for... well, turns out during my research that this film has been causing controversy practically since the day it was conceived. The thing is, Disney's self-censorship of the film has just exacerbated it beyond reason. I am in agreement with the Antagony and Ecstasy blog that if Disney quietly put "Song of the South" out on a limited edition Blue-Ray tomorrow, honestly most of the people buying it would be doing so just to see what the whole hubbub is all about. Until that day comes, you will, sadly, have to find the film through unconventional means. And I shouldn't encourage this kind of thing, but what choice has Disney left us with?

Well in any case, it's far more important to note now that I have caught up on every big-deal classic Disney film that contains animation! It's been a hell of a journey, and one that I recommend to anyone with even the slightest interest in animation.

That said, I'm not stopping until Disney does. Bring on "Winnie the Pooh" and "Wreck-It Ralph" and "King of the Elves" (maybe?) and "The Snow Queen"! For more posts in this ongoing series, go here, or click the Chronological Disney Animated Canon tag below.

* - "But Trish, since I don't want to go through the trouble of finding a copy of the movie, just how racially problematic *are* the live-action portions of 'Song of the South'?"

Well first off, thanks for asking a person who has actually sat down and watched "Song of the South" rather than, as I suspect, one of the many, many people who refuse to experience controversial media yet form an opinion about them anyway. But the best way to find out how offensive "Song of the South" is to *you* (and notice the emphasis on *you*,
because I simply have no way of knowing what would offend *you* as different people are sensitive to entirely different things), if you're really curious, is to just watch the darn thing yourself.

Listen, essays have been written on this subject. Long ones. By people far, faaar more qualified to talk about this kind of controversial and highly emotional issue. So I don't know what I could add to the argument, but I feel I should add something. But I highly suspect I wouldn't feel compelled to elaborate on any of this if Disney hadn't self-censored the film.

And this is because honestly, the awkward ethnic identity politics here are about as offensive as other films and animation and media from the time period.
As I said, I didn't find "Song of the South" as face-meltingly racist as I found it just really, really weird and uncomfortable. What do I mean by that? Well, remember, the less you resembled what Walt Disney would consider "normal", the more problematic your onscreen depiction would be. Which means that anything uncomfortable in "Song of the South" is in good company with other (suspiciously not censored) Disney films. What's up, Peter Pan. How's Princess Tiger Lily? More to the point, how's her entire tribe?

The most obviously offensive aspect of "Song of the South" is the very, very bizarre "American Adventure"-ish Disney spin and big giant smiley face it puts on one of the most horrible chapters in United States history... maybe. The movie doesn't state openly whether it takes place before, during, or after the Civil War and that's what most of the awkward scenes orbit around.

Okay, details. So in "Song of the South" there's a rich old white woman who lives in a mansion that just happens to be right near a field where poor black people cheerily whistle their way to work and are generally depicted
(much like other non-WASPs in Disney's movies) as weird/scary/fascinating alien Others. The word "slave" is never spoken out loud ever, and indeed the film takes the longest possible route out of it's way to avoid any racially charged language at all. Annoying Little Boy's best friend is a black kid, and the film interestingly does not approach this friendship as unusual at all. But then you notice that said best friend is conspicuously absent during the big (and ultimately kinda pointless) birthday party scene without explanation. The only truly mean human characters are a pair of unspeakably cruel poor white boys (though that's pretty loaded in its own way come to mention it). Uncle Remus lives in his own little shack and it is shown late in the film that he can pack up and leave whenever he likes. Annoying Little Boy's mother doesn't want her son playing with Uncle Remus, and in one of the more awkward scenes, Uncle Remus does not act more assertive when confronted by her. This is all because she is really really prejudiced against... storytellers. Yup.

As it happens, the film is so obtuse and reliant on outmoded ethnic stereotypes from several generations back, I found myself saying "OMG, this is so racist!" much much less often than I was saying, "uhhh?" or "wait, what?" But if I am to be truly honest, I found the racial politics in a slightly more recent film more troubling. And there wasn't anything in "Song of the South" that was so openly racist that it melted my face off the way an obscure number in this stone-cold Christmas classic did. And "Song of the South" didn't p*ss me off nearly as much as "Gone With the Wind" did, so there's that.


Sketch of the Day!

Such controversy! Such drama! Let's wash it all away with in-progress turtles!

"Turtle Power" Progress 5

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