We have invested in Disney+ in our house. This is part of our ongoing mission to have every form of televisual streaming service imaginable, to ensure that we never, ever have to confront the full horror of spending time together as a family, making conversation, playing board games, and sharing our feelings.
The service supposedly offers the full back catalogue of feature films from the Disney vault, but that’s not entirely true. There is one film that has been quietly consigned to Disney’s historical dustbin. It is a film never spoken of, an unacknowledged and disowned embarrassment, like an aunt with a fondness for gin and the showtunes from Cats.
The film in question is Song of the South, and the reason for its absence from Disney+ is its eye-poppingly, teeth-achingly, bum-clenchingly insensitive treatment of race.
The story follows seven-year-old Johnny as he spends his summer on a plantation, where he befriends Uncle Remus, one of the workers there. The problem is, the plantation is basically akin to a kibbutz crossed with a holiday camp. The workers there have a delightful time, and are all supremely contented with their lot in life. I mean, I understand this is Disney – you don’t want to sit down with your little darlings and munch on popcorn while watching chronic poverty, beatings and lynchings – but there has to be a balance struck between grim realism and a complete whitewash of history.
And that’s not all. Uncle Remus talks in a stereotypical black slang, and the film features a minstrel-ish chorus of happily close-harmonising workers. Perhaps most damningly, at one point Uncle Remus laments the passing of the good old days, which is to say, before the abolition of slavery. Because, lest we forget, the African American population really loooooved those simpler times, amirite?
There will, I’ve no doubt, be plenty of keyboard warriors out there – you know the type, their twitter bio says “Love my country” and is illustrated with a St George’s Cross – who will regard this as political correctness gone mad. The film was made in 1946, times were different, attitudes were less woke. But this isn’t just a revisionist take on the film – there were concerns aplenty at the time. The NAACP and the American Council on Race Relations both asked to see a treatment of the film, and both were denied. There were pickets and newspaper articles objecting to the film. The Afro-American newspaper called it “as vicious a piece of propaganda for white supremacy as Hollywood ever produced.”
There are issues in other films, too. Dumbo features a group of crows who talk in stereotypical jive (voiced by a white guy) and are illustrated as poor and uneducated. Even worse, the lead crow was called ‘Jim Crow’, a pejorative term for black people, and the popular name for the racial segregation laws in place when the film was made.
Even as recently as 1990, there were objections raised to the crab, Sebastian, in The Little Mermaid, a character with a Jamaican accent who celebrated the fact that, under the sea, nobody ever needed to do any work, while “up ion the shore they work all day, out in the sun they slave away.” Then there’s the excruciating song about the Native American in Peter Pan, “What Made the Red Man Red”? It’s almost impossible to watch these sequences without plucking out your own eyeballs and soaking them in bleach.
Once you start going down the ‘Racist Disney’ rabbit hole, it’s difficult to stop seeing everything through a prism of righteous indignation. Snow WHITE, you say? And I notice that ALL of the baddies in The Lion King are of African origin. Meanwhile, Frozen is entirely devoid of any strong black role models. All 101 of those dalmatians have far more white on them than they do black. Have you SEEN Mary Poppins? All that blacking up. Admittedly they’re chimney sweeps, but still… And the depiction in Ratatouille of the French as a nation of volatile chefs all obsessed with food is entirely absurd. (Actually, that one’s probably accurate).
So, was dear old Uncle Walt a card-carrying, hood-wearing, cross-burning racist? Should we all be looking for hideously bigoted subtexts in his films? Is Bambi really a call to arms to the Aryan Nation? Is there secret footage of Mickey Mouse goose-stepping around Dinseyland? Probably not. According to Neal Gabler, Disney’s biographer, “Walt Disney was no racist. He never, either publicly or privately, made disparaging remarks about blacks or asserted white superiority. Like most white Americans of his generation, however, he was racially insensitive.”
So it’s probably not necessary to start boycotting Disney+ (besides, that’s one battle I’m not ready to have with my kids). But the call to exclude The Song of the South from their back catalogue is probably a good one. In an age where the pernicious spectre of racism is stalking society from the streets of Wisconsin to the corridors of The White House, it would do us all well to show a little sensitivity.