Song of the South. Does anybody actually know what this movie is about?! What we knew about Song of the South prior to viewing: uh….it’s racist, and um, ‘zip-a-dee-doo-dah’ and that it combines animation and live-action. That was it.
We suspect that most people (especially people reading this blog) haven’t the faintest as to what the plot line is, if it’s any good, if there are hot women…these are things we needed to know.
We’ll discuss the racism thing a bit, but there’s so much more material to mock and overthink that is, sadly, oft left unmocked and underthunk.
Cast of Characters (in order of appearance)
Johnny–The protagonist. He’s…well, not very cute. [MLE: I mean really? Was there a child shortage near the Disney studios?]
Sally–Johnny’s mom. She’s kind of obstinate and unpleasant.
John, Sr.–Johnny’s dad. He’s only appears at the beginning and the very end of the movie. Likes serious PDA. Writes ‘controversial’ column for a paper. And that’s basically all they say about it.
Aunt Tempy–Hattie McDaniel reprises her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, except for the big difference that this is post-war. McDaniel had far more to offer as an actress, if only she’d been white. Or if people hadn’t been such racist bastards.
Granny Doshy–Johnny’s maternal grandma, who has more sense than her daughter. The gilf.
slave servant boy who’s about Johnny’s age and plays with him. [And serves him.]
The Bull–is awesome. Don’t mess with the bull’s field.
Uncle Remus–Old, friendly ex-slave [presumably]. Likes to tell stories that help people and uses reverse psychology to get children to do what he wants. Sounds dirty, but isn’t. [Or is it?]
Ginny–Johnny’s white playmate. She’s much poorer than Johnny, but he likes her anyway. Plus, she has a puppy.
Teenchi–the puppy [Teenchi is said throughout the film in this annoying, high-pitched, slap-them-on-the-back-of-the-head whine. Try it out. You’ll want to hurt yourself (or small children) in two minutes or less.]
Joe and Jake–Ginny’s older brothers. They represent Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear.
The film opens in a dark cabin with an empty chair next to a fireplace.
We better not find out everybody’s been dead for most of the movie…
We hear Uncle Remus chuckling and saying, “yessir, there’s other ways of learning about the behind feet of a mule than getting kicked by ’em, sho as I’m named Remus. And just cause these here tales is about critters like Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox, that don’t mean they ain’t the same like can happen to folks. So them what can’t learn from a tale about critters, just ain’t got their ears tuned for listin’. Like as not they too busy goin’ along all mixed up with they own troubles, uh…like the time that Miss Sally and Mister John was comin’ down to the plantation…”
So, you think, ‘cool, this is about John, Sr. (Jack) and Sally (Kate) and their relationship.’ [Sadly, there’s no Sawyer equivalent.] But no, the movie’s about the kid and hardly mentions the father or his relationship with the mother for the rest of the movie.
After the creepy empty chair scene, we see Johnny, Aunt Tempy, Sally and John, Sr. riding on their way to granny’s plantation, during which time we’re privy to this snippet of conversation; including some serious non-verbal cues:
[Sally and John, Sr. share a look and Sally looks away, biting her bottom lip. Johnny notices.]
Sally: Yes, Johnny?
Johnny: Why are we going to Grandma’s?
Sally: Well–I told you dear, for a visit.
Johnny: Why don’t she come to see us, like she did last spring?
Sally: Because…I thought you’d enjoy seeing the plantation.
Johnny: Is Grandma mad at us?
Sally: Well, of course not, Johnny. Whatever gave you that idea?
Johnny: Well, Georgie says, ‘Everybody’s mad [about] what Daddy writes in the newspaper.’ [Here, John, Sr. and Sally share another look.] Don’t Grandma read the newspaper? Don’t she?
John, Sr.: She does, and she likes what’s in it.
Sally: John, please!
Johnny: Are you mad at each other, too?
Sally: Why no dear. Course not. Nooooo, of course not.
Once there, John, Sr. ditches them to go back to Atlanta, ’cause, you know, Atlanta was the place to be immediately post-Civil War. Sally protests, and to shut her up, he makes out with her [it’s kind of awkward], scarring young Johnny for life:
[The mom and dad were married in real life at the time of filming, but divorced the same year the film was released. Curious.]
Johnny is so all like ‘Daddy, don’t go!’ that, at the first opportunity, Johnny flees the plantation’s mansion and ends up eavesdropping on a black folks meeting complete with spirituals [the whitest negro spirituals we’ve ever heard] and a story by Uncle Remus. We’ve never heard any spirituals or slave songs like this…sounds like a bunch of black people singing white people songs. Or white people singing white people songs. Kind of sounds like the same voices singing the very white opening credits. Hmm… It’s probably not, and we’re just so white we don’t know.
Uncle Remus convinces the lady servants that came to retrieve Johnny that he knows where he is, but that he won’t give him up. Nope, not creepy at all. He convinces Johnny through a Br’er Rabbit parable to not runaway. It’s during this story that Uncle Remus is transported into an animated world, interacting with cute little animated creatures, and singing the super famous “Zip-a dee-doo-dah”. “…everything is satisfactual.” Except your life’s not changed much since you were a slave. Oh, yeah, that. Clearly written by white guys. Simply don’t know what black person in 1940s U.S. would have come up with that?
Uncle Remus’ story and mental out-manoeuvring work and Johnny is taken back to the big plantation mansion, where Granny proceeds to chew Uncle Remus out. Uncle Remus is taking care of your boy, dispensing sage advice and cleaning up your domestic shit, and you are so patronizing to him. Jerks.
Notice the way she tries to intimidate him. It’s almost like she sees him as subordinate or something – despite there being no evidence he ever worked for her. It’s almost like the plantation owner is racist. Noooo, not in the Reconstruction-era South!
Of course, Disney did not want to fan the flames of racial tension by doing something as radical as having a black person communicating as an equal with a white person. Instead, Uncle Remus adopts one of the most submissive positions to have been captured in G-rated cinema and just takes it.
The next day Toby, who seems to take delight in being Johnny’s servant (e.g. being up at the crack of dawn to make sure that Johnny has hot water for his pitcher and basin), invites him on a frog catching mission.
It went something like this:
Before he can escape, however, Johnny receives the wonderous gift of this doily collar:
J: Do I have to wear that suit?
S: Yes dear, Daddy’s mother’s coming to see us today.
Not grandma. Daddy’s mother–sense some tension here?
J: And the collar, too?
S: Yes dear, of course. She made it for you herself. She’d want to see how nice it looks on you.
J: But Toby and I were going frog hunting.
S: [laughs] That’s alright, darling. You can go another day. Now get dressed and come on down to breakfast.
That is, “Shhh little boy. I’m not listening to you.”
After the visit from “Daddy’s mother” Johnny and Toby wander off and gawk at the awesome bull, and marvel at his destructive power. They then run into Joe and Jake, the local hoodlums who are basically tormenting their little sister (Ginny) by taking her dog away. They proceed to add to Johnny’s torment about his awful clothing by calling him a girl.
The mocking music builds and builds, making you think that he’s going to lose it and do something dramatic. We were a little disappointed when he only threw a rock in the water and not himself. The music was building up so much! Pretty anticlimactic.
Ginny watches as Johnny feverishly removes the collar, looks at it in disgust, then chucks it on ground.
Ginny informs him, in the most annoying way ever, that the puppy’s name is TEEeenchi. He repeats (also quite annoyingly). By now our ears are bleeding. To celebrate their exchange and new friendship, Johnny steals a boat and they go for a joyride around the pond.
Johnny is not allowed to keep Teenchi and pawns the pup off on Uncle Remus. When he finds him, Uncle Remus is singing about how he’d like to be like Br’er Possum because sleeping all day would be the best thing ever. Get it? Because black people are lazy and stuff. Ahaha…ha. ha. Nope, still not funny. See, this film is harmless. It doesn’t promote negative stereotypes at all.
Ginny tells Johnny, if her brothers keep pestering him about Teenchi, to just tell her ma, and “she’ll wail the daylights out of ’em.” Great.
Sally finds out from blabber mouths Joe and Jake that Johnny hadn’t given Teenchi back, but given him to Uncle Remus instead. They also apprise her of the fact that Johnny outsmarted them by telling them that he didn’t care if they told his mom, but to please not tell their mom (who, of course, wailed the daylights out of them). Uncle Remus explains:
Sally tells him that his stories are confusing Johnny, that he’s too young for them and orders Uncle Remus to not tell Johnny any more stories. What the peety bleepin’ kind of stories does she think he’s telling him?
To cheer Johnny up, Sally throws him an extra big birthday party, inviting all the kids (she reluctantly includes Ginny) from the area, you know, to make up for the fact that John, Sr. and Uncle Remus won’t be there.
Johnny meets Ginny at her place to to escort her to his party. She asks him if he likes her dress, explaining that it was her ma’s wedding dress. You ruined your wedding dress so your little girl would have something to wear to the rich kid’s party? Whoa.
Uncle Remus breaks up the fight and Johnny runs off to console Ginny by telling her it wasn’t much of a party anyway, offering to clean her dress and starting to tell her a story about Br’er Rabbit. Awww. Which makes Uncle Remus beam and Ginny cry harder. Uncle Remus interjects, offering to take care of Ginny and urging Johnny to go back home. He objects, saying he’s totally all bummed because “Ginny’s dirty and daddy didn’t come.” Uncle Remus sits with the kids. and says, “move over honey, I got troubles, too.” He continued, “see, I was whipped a lot…and I was a slave for like, ever…” No, instead, he just tells a story about Br’er Rabbit.
When he gets Johnny back home, Sally is ticked off. She tells Remus that she doesn’t want him to see Johnny anymore. So, Uncle Remus starts making plans to leave. Johnny, distraught, runs after Uncle Remus, cutting across a field to catch him before he leaves for good. But he’s crossed into the bull’s field. There’s some serious smack-down, leaving Johnny limp and Sally’s all sad and stuff.
Of course, all the former slaves who work the plantation, loving little Johnny as they do, take their precious evening hours and hold a vigil out the front of the mansion, where they sing a song that sounds strangely close to “Let My People Go.”
It’s here that John, Sr. comes back, rushing to Johnny’s bedside. Johnny rouses and asks for Uncle Remus. Grandma Doshy, the only one with sense, calls for Uncle Remus to be brought in. He stays by Johnny’s bed, telling him stories and holding his hand. It’s pretty endearing. And of course, Johnny gets better.
The movie closes as Uncle Remus, Sally, John, Sr., and Grandma are gathered around a much improved Johnny’s bed, with Uncle Remus saying “things are lookin’ mighty satisfaction.” Yeah, except you’re still practically a slave.
Wrestling with the Racism
Song of the South has a reputation for being the most racist Disney production in history. Whether that is true may depend on how you judge it. By sheer quantity Song of the South does beat out pretty much every other Disney film. However, in terms of the offensiveness of the racist material, there are other Disney films that contain at least as offensive material – they just don’t base the whole premise of the film on it.
Birth of a Nation = Sets out to be racist.
Song of the South = Can’t help but to be racist.
MLE: [Looks distainfully at Ricktopher, yet not really sure how best to improve upon this.]
As you can see, we’re still trying to wrap our heads around it. Just how offensive is this?
Maybe we’ve been missing the point. Is it really important to be able to gauge the level/s of racism in Song of the South? Perhaps not. It’s racist and offensive. It’s also got the most phuckingliest, irritatingly catchy tunes. [Especially the opening credits. Oh, gosh. So awesome.]
Why was/is there such a strong reaction to this movie and not other movies like Dumbo? Here’s one possiblity:
Slavery is something that white people, especially Northern whites, can morally object to without tackling racism, ethnocentrism and general cultural sensitivity. Other Disney fare (Dumbo, Peter Pan, Davy Crockett, etc.) is replete with comparatively subtle and sometimes egregiously blatant negative stereotypes, concepts and other racially charged views. Yet questioning the content of these movies forces us to think about issues that are still systemic and require systemic changes to be properly addressed. It’s much easier to condemn a 1940’s Disney movie (set in the distant late-19th century) and feel good about our anti-slavery selves.
Since the movie’s set in the Reconstruction Era South, slavery’s technically not part of the environment. Perhaps we missed something, but we couldn’t actually tell this was post-war. As a result, we kept thinking things like, ‘Oh, the kid’s running away, not the slaves, right? Because they love being slaves and workin’ for the massah…’. At the end we wondered, ‘did they actually ever mention slaves or slavery?’ The fact this was so hard to determine is telling. That particular breed of racial oppression is far enough removed from modern-day racism that we can safely ‘poo-poo’ it without reflecting on injustice in our current systems. And this is probably why Song of the South gets the beat down while other offensive Disney fare gets the seal of approval.
- Splash Mountain is a lone remnant of Song of the South‘s legacy. Ricktopher has been on it and remembers seeing the cartoon characters and thinking, “I don’t care about this. When is the big splash?” That was the extent of his Song of the South-related memories of Disneyland prior to watching the film.
- In 1929, James Baskett (Uncle Remus) appeared on Broadway with Louis Armstrong in an all-black musical revue written by Andy Razaf and pianist/composer Fats Waller called Hot Chocolates. Yep.
- In 1943, Baskett appeared in Revenge of the Zombies as Lazarus, a zombie, Egor-like right hand man to a mad scientist trying to create a force of zombie warriors for the Third Reich.
- Disney’s Song of the South > “Song of the South” by Alabama < “Sweet Home, Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd < “Alabama” by Neil Young < Bob Ross’ fro.
- Disney’s source for these stories about Br’er Rabbit, the tar baby, et al.? A white dude, who swiped ’em from the African-American community and made money off of them. What a winner.
AND THE BEST PART? When Song of the South premiered in Atlanta, Georgia, James Baskett, was banned from the ‘whites only’ venue.
Rating versus Joe versus the Volcano: Thumbs down.
Rating versus Joe versus the Volcano: Thumbs down.