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Many people who’ve never gotten a chance to see Song of the South, or who’ve only seen short, isolated segments, have perpetuated the claim that the film is racist. Now, granted, I’m not African–American, and therefore see the world through a different lens. I don’t have the same socialization and life experiences, and therefore would never claim my opinion is the only correct one. It’s the same reason I’d never claim to understand exactly what it’s like, e.g., to be a man, a Hispanic, or a Hindu.
After revisiting the film almost 30 years later (through a bootlegged streaming on a free movie-watching site which shall go unnamed), I came away not seeing the film as racist at all. It’s more racial than racist, which I’ll explain.
The film is set in Reconstructionist-era Georgia, just as Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories are. However, it’s extremely unclear as to when exactly it’s set, and thus many people over the years have falsely accused it of being set during the antebellum (pre-Civil War) era.
The Hays Office had asked Walt Disney to establish the fact that the film is set in the 1870s, but he included no such introductory title card, nor any other mention of a date or establishing historical context. The only real clue as to it not being antebellum is how Uncle Remus is free to leave the plantation and move to Atlanta. A slave couldn’t have done that!
The film definitely depicts an unrealistically rosy-colored picture of newly-freed slaves who are still working on the old plantation. Of course, contrary to popular belief, there were many benevolent slave owners, and freed slaves who had decent lives. It’s not like everyone were some crazed Simon Legree.
However, many freed slaves’ lives didn’t improve, or barely improved. There’s a happy medium between showing an idyllic picture of plantation life in the Reconstructionist era and showing dire poverty, exploitation, bad blood between freed slaves and their former owners who had begun paying them, and dismal living conditions. I obviously don’t expect a children’s movie to err on the darker side of history!
Uncle Remus does rather embody the stereotype of the Magical Negro, someone who rescues white characters, is in a lowly position, is very wise and patient, usually has no past and just appears to help white characters, and often has mystical powers or special insights. The term itself wasn’t coined till 2001, though this type of stock character has a very long history.
There’s also an accusation of Uncle Tomism, as Uncle Remus seems to be content with a subservient position.
However, the African–American characters are, by and large, a lot more sympathetic and interesting than the white characters. The white characters include Johnny’s straitlaced mother and grandmother, and the Favers boys who bully Johnny and Ginny. Even if Uncle Remus might be considered an Uncle Tom or Magical Negro, he at least provides Johnny with friendship, comfort, and assistance. He’s hands-down the best character.
Promoting interracial friendship is always a good thing, even if the circumstances are a bit unrealistic and rosy-colored.
Disney has made the situation worse by burying this film and refusing to release it on home media (though it is available in the U.K., Japan, and Hong Kong). Since no one can see it without going through a lot of difficulty, people are unable to form honest opinions about it, and to place it in its proper historical context.
Disney could’ve easily slipped it in there when it was releasing all those really obscure, completist films in the Aughts, like the war propaganda cartoons and the Zorro TV series. All these films got rich bonus features, including commentaries placing them in their proper context.
The film has assumed a wild life of its own, with many folks believing it has to be some horribly racist, offensive movie because Disney won’t release it.
Disney is showing absolutely staggering amounts of inconsistency by burying some films and not others. We’ve probably all heard people levelling accusations of racism at the crows in Dumbo and the Native American scenes in Peter Pan, yet both of those films are very much out there. Why hold Song of the South to such a different standard?
Considering there have been over 700 reported hate crimes in the U.S. in the last two weeks, I think the unrealistically rosy setting of Song of the South is a lot better than a Black church getting burnt or people getting beaten up and having their property vandalized.