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How Disney tried and failed to remove Song of the South from history
On June 25, 2020, The Walt Disney Company announced its plans to reinvent its iconic Splash Mountain log flume ride as an attraction based on the 2009 animated movie The Princess and the Frog. This development had been in the works for over a year before the company's announcement, but the public revelation coincided with a Change dot org petition that suggested the revamp. The news inspired a barrage of anger, most of which seemed intensely bad-faith in intent, over the supposed historical whitewash of Splash Mountain's original theming, the Uncle Remus folk tales that would form the basis of the 1946 film Song of the South. The usual arguments swirled, from "oversensitive SJWs" wanting to "censor" art to the supposed erasure of a Disney classic. It did not seem to bother these people that Disney has spent decades trying to erase its own movie from history. With the impending closure of Splash Mountain, the House of Mouse is one step closer to its long-time endgame of pretending that Song of the South never existed to begin with.
In the early 1940s, Walt Disney was in a precarious position. The Second World War had decimated his box office prowess and the company ended up taking on a lot of government work producing war propaganda. While the seven dwarfs sold war bonds and Donald Duck exposed the dystopian world of Nazi rule, the company's animators had gone on strike. The notoriously anti-union Uncle Walt never forgave his employees for what he saw as a betrayal — he even ended up testifying to the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s, which led to the blacklisting of many of those figures. Between increasing financial difficulties and his spiteful desire to experiment more with live-action, Disney needed new streams of revenue. He also wanted his own epic, a potential money machine on the same scale as 1939's Gone With the Wind, a movie that, when adjusted for inflation, is still the most successful film of all time.
Disney had previously purchased the rights to the Joel Chandler Harris Uncle Remus storybook, claiming to remember hearing the stories as a child, and thought that the material was perfect for his new ambitions. Harris was a journalist and writer who wrote down the stories he heard from enslaved people, then took all the profits when they became successful. His legacy has always been complicated, with Black writers and scholars still divided on his efforts. Julius Lester, a folklorist and civil rights activist, said that the Uncle Remus stories, as told by Harris, were accurate characterizations of the original tales and, as such, were important parts of Black folklore. The author Ralph Ellison of Invisible Man fame said that Harris's work "taught us that comedy is a disguised form of philosophical instruction; and especially when it allows us to glimpse the animal instincts lying beneath the surface of our civilized affectations." By contrast, The Color Purple author Alice Walker accused Harris of "stealing a good part of my heritage" in an essay titled "Uncle Remus, No Friend of Mine."
It remains indicative, however, of how white supremacy works that it's Harris's interpretation of Black storytelling that Disney turned to rather than its originators. As Keith Cartwright noted, for better or worse, "Harris might arguably be called the greatest single authorial force behind the literary development of African American folk matter and manner."
It's not as if Disney didn't know he was working with contentious material either. He hired Clarence Muse, the performer and first African American to appear in a starring role in a movie, to be a screenplay consultant. Muse, however, quit the job when the original screenwriter, Dalton S. Reymond, ignored his suggestions to portray the Black characters as more than trite stereotypes. Muse went so far as to write letters to the editors of various Black publications to criticize the film before it ever got to the shooting stage. Reymond, who has no screenplay credits aside from Song of the South, peppered his original treatment with words like "massa" and "darkey." Disney knew this would be a problem, so he brought on board Maurice Rapf to temper the situation.
Rapf was a curious choice for this job. While he was an experienced screenwriter, he wasn't a Disney man. Moreover, he was Jewish, the co-founder of the Screen Writers Guild, and a full-on communist. Essentially, he was Walt Disney's worst nightmare, but that seemed to be a good thing for Walt when it came to Song of the South. When Rapf asked him why Disney wanted him to work on the movie, given his fear that the movie would inevitably be an Uncle Tom-esque racist nightmare, Disney said, "That's exactly why I want you to work on it," Walt told him, "because I know that you don't think I should make the movie. You're against Uncle Tomism, and you're a radical." Rapf took the job but only lasted seven weeks before an argument with Reymond saw him removed from the project. He was replaced by Morton Grant. Of the six screenwriters credited on Song of the South, all of them are white.
Disney threw everything into Song of the South. Its initial budget of $2.125 million (around $28.3 million in 2020 money) was over $700,000 more than Make Mine Music, the animated movie that was also released in 1946. The movie's premiere was held at the Fox Theater in Atlanta, the same cinema where Gone With the Wind was first screened. At the time, Atlanta was racially segregated so the film's leading man, James Baskett, couldn't even attend the premiere. This was meant to be a defining moment in Disney history, a sign that Walt could keep up with any epic that his contemporaries in Hollywood could create. So, it was something of a surprise for Uncle Walt when the movie did just kind of OK at the box office.
Reviews were mixed too. While the animation was praised, the story itself was seen as predictable, devoid of charm, and clearly problematic in terms of race and history. The NAACP picketed the movie, with the organization's executive secretary Walter Francis White releasing a statement condemning the film for the way it "perpetuate[s] a dangerously glorified picture of slavery. Making use of the beautiful Uncle Remus folklore, Song of the South, unfortunately, gives the impression of an idyllic master-slave relationship which is a distortion of the facts." Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., a congressman from Harlem, branded the film an "insult to American minorities [and] everything that America as a whole stands for." Richard B. Dier of The Afro-American slammed the movie for being "as vicious a piece of propaganda for white supremacy as Hollywood ever produced."
Over the decades, Song of the South, like many other Disney movies, was re-released into theaters, first in 1956, then in 1972, 1980, and 1986. Notably, however, there has never been a home video release of the movie in the United States. It could be purchased in Europe or Asia, and it even screened on television in the U.S. on the Disney Channel, but to this day, it remains elusive in America. It's not on Disney+ and it probably never will be. In March 2010, Disney CEO Bob Iger said that there were no plans for a home release because the film was "fairly offensive [and] antiquated." This was a stance that Roger Ebert supported. One major public voice in the camp of publicly re-releasing the movie is Whoopi Goldberg, who said she was "trying to find a way to get people to start having conversations about bringing Song of the South back, so we can talk about what it was and where it came from and why it came out." For most people, Song of the South is a distant memory, one they know more about through pop culture osmosis than direct experience. That's just how Disney wants it. And yet Disney, for all their efforts to quietly erase Song of the South the movie from existence, has perpetuated the problem. It's one questionable decision to ignore your own history; it's quite another to strip-mine it for parts while playing the card of denial.
You may not have had Song of the South on video as a kid, but you may have owned one of the Disney Sing-Along VHS tapes that featured "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah," the movie's most popular song. That song has endured for decades, long after the movie became a cultural curiosity. Everyone has sung a version of it, from the Jackson Five to Julie Andrews to Miley Cyrus to Louis Armstrong. The song won the movie an Oscar and is frequently cited as one of the best musical numbers in Disney history. To this day, that song is omnipresent in Disney's branding and storytelling. Disney has worked overtime to divorce that peppy earworm from its deeply racist origins, even though the song was likely inspired by a pre-Civil War number called "Zip Coon" according to Doo-dah!: Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture by Ken Emmerson.
And then there's Splash Mountain, a theme park ride that became a semi-permanent monument to an ignored film through a mixture of coincidence, happenstance, and corporate synergy. Disneyland was in need of a log flume ride, but the only free space they had to build it was in the Bear Country section of the park, where the Country Bear Jamboree took place. So, they needed an attraction that fit with their theme, and if it was able to make use of the leftover animatronics from their defunct show America Sings, all the better. Imagineer Tony Baxter came up with the idea of using the animated segments from Song of the South, but then-CEO Michael Eisner was understandably worried about the racism. He insisted that Uncle Remus not be included in the attraction (although some of his quotes from the movie are on the walls of the ride areas) and made sure that more obviously upsetting moments such as the "tar baby" were removed entirely. He also suggested that the ride be named Splash Mountain, not to distance itself from Song of the South but as a means to promote the Tom Hanks mermaid movie Splash. It didn't make sense at the time and it still doesn't.
The ride opened in 1989 to instant success and little controversy. Construction quickly began on new Splash Mountains for the Disney parks in Florida and Tokyo, and the ride has been a company favorite for over 30 years. A whole lot of people who enjoy that ride may have no idea that it's based on Song of the South, but for others, the inaccessibility of that film has given Splash Mountain a kind of enshrined status that has made it a handy battering ram for people who like to rant about "culture warriors" and the like. They latched onto it as a way to make some sort of inconsistent point about censorship and offense, with some proclaiming Song of the South to be a lost masterpiece.
So, let's get this out of the way: Song of the South is a wildly racist movie. It was racist in 1946 and Disney knew it, and it never stopped being racist. It's also not very good, a mostly boring slog of stereotypes and preachiness that would probably bore modern audiences used to Frozen and The Avengers. It was deeply misguided, to put it politely, for Disney to ever make the film. But they did make it, and it's both culturally and societally questionable that the company has now decided to pretend the film never existed even as they deify various aspects of it for continued profit. It stands to reason that one of the reasons the film has become this tool of the right is because its status as an impossible-to-see movie has given it a kind of mythos it's never deserved. There's no easy way out of that conundrum because it's one that Disney has spent decades maintaining.
It's understandable why, in 2020, Disney is particularly keen to keep Song of the South in its near-mythic vault, even as they continue to make their immense back-catalog more accessible than ever via Disney+. It would seem like a step back for them in many ways, and nobody wants to see this film appropriated by the wrong people to become a symbol of "the good old days." Historical denial, however, clearly hasn't worked for them, not as long as they continue to pick and choose their preferred parts of the movie and act as if the context doesn't matter. It will take a long time for The Walt Disney Company to fully dig themselves out of this hole of their own making, but changing Splash Mountain into an attraction that celebrates their only Black princess is at least a step in the right direction.