It’s been years since Americans have received a visit from their amiable Uncle Remus, that delightfully offensive racist caricature whose true loves seem to be storytelling, plantation life and sharing his joy of both with troubled white children. What a swell fella! For those of you who miss that most agreeable of souls, get ready to scream, "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah, Motherfucker!", ‘cuz according to a report from the Associated Press, it sounds like Disney President and CEO Bob Iger is mulling some kind of special re-release for Song of the South, the company’s reviled, but undeniably groundbreaking live-action/animated depiction of African-American folktales as related by Remus, a creation of author Joel Chandler Harris.
Quoth the Iger: "The question of Song of the South comes up periodically, in fact it was raised at last year’s annual meeting. And since that time, we’ve decided to take a look at it again because we’ve had numerous requests about bringing it out. Our concern was that a film that was made so many decades ago being brought out today perhaps could be either misinterpreted or that it would be somewhat challenging in terms of providing the appropriate context."
Here’s where it gets tricky. Harris is considered by many prominent African-American artists and historians as something of a cultural interloper for having stolen his tales of Br’er Rabbit from freed slaves, most of whom lacked the education or the resources to preserve their heritage on the printed page. It’s an oral tradition Toni Morrison successfully reclaimed in her celebrated novel, Tar Baby (more interesting than good, in my opinion), the title referring to the infamous story in which Br’er Rabbit unwittingly wallops his way into a trap set for him by Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear (who then throw the helpless sap into a briar patch, which, as a child, always struck me as frighteningly cruel). But one novel and a passel of chiding essays seems a woefully insufficient corrective when placed against decades of racially insensitive stereotypes popularized by a middlingly talented white guy looking to eke out a career.
And yet Song of the South has its non-racist, genuinely thoughtful champions. Roger Ebert and Harry Knowles have both lobbied passionately on the film’s behalf, and they make solid points about its peaceful, inclusive theme transcending the completely fucked-up Uncle Tom context. It’s true that most kids lack the frame of reference to process the fact that Uncle Remus is a former slave who’s chosen to hang around the plantation because that’s all he’s ever known, but if I were a parent (and, thank god for all that is good and right and not like a Russ Meyer film come vibrantly to life, I am not), I don’t know how I could in good conscience show the movie to my children – especially if we were living in a largely white community. Song of the South isn’t just frivolous entertainment; it’s a goddamn masterpiece that’s impossible to shrug off like, say, Transformers: The Movie. I only saw it once back in the early 1980s when I was just a little bastard, but it’s seared into my brain like nearly every other Disney classic from the 1937-1959 period. It’ll stick with children and, uh, color their worldview, which is a wee bit problematic. The last thing I need is for my kids to see a bearded black man on the street and ask him where the animated birds are.
Of course, if I ever showed Song of the South to my hypothetical kids, I’d be sure to explain to them, once they were done sawing the cat’s tail off, that the movie isn’t representative of modern day attitudes about black folk. But that raises the question as to why I’d show it to them in the first place when I could sit them down with a more racially sensitive classic like Sounder or Fight for Your Life. For all the good, solid morals Song of the South imparts, they’re kinda undermined by the film’s anodyne depiction of an era when very few African-Americans felt like whistling "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah".
All of that said, that doesn’t mean Disney should suppress the film like it’s their Triumph of the Will. It’s an important movie, one that discerning adults and their children, if their parents so choose, should have the option to see. But only after they watch Fight for Your Life. I just can’t stress that enough. Ignore the misrepresentative cover art and so-called "reviews", and screen that sucker for your children posthaste. Trust me.