THE COMING AND PASSING OF "SONG OF THE SOUTH" Image

This is a scene-by-scene account of “Song of the South.” Nothing has been left out except two brief transitional scenes in which the plantation’s slaves are shown singing. The only other significant moment occurs before Uncle Remus leaves the bedroom in the penultimate scene. He confides to Johnny’s grandmother that, quoting a line from “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” “everything is satisfactual.” That’s it. Simplistic, hokey and sentimental, yes. But hardly offensive or objectionable in any way. The main character is not Johnny of course, but Uncle Remus. And he is not, as some would contend, a servile slave or Uncle Tom, bowing and scraping at every turn. There’s barely a discernible “Yes ma’am” in his dialogue, and none of the black characters address anyone with the usual excessively subordinate terminology assoc-iated with slavery or its era. For good or ill, there’s little historical authenticity of any measure to be found in “Song of the South.”

But then, the place hardly seems like a real plantation and the black characters bear little resemblance to slaves, even as they’re otherwise portrayed in movies of the period. Essentially, “Song of the South” is just too kindhearted. When Uncle Remus feels unwanted, he just packs up and walks off the plantation as if he’s free to do what he wants. Even the singing style of the slaves bears no resemblance to that of spirituals or traditional work songs. There’s also a conspicuous lack of a white foreman and slave drivers. Indeed, there’s no apparent authority anywhere in the film, and Johnny’s grandmother seems to be running a nice country house, not an active cotton plantation. Even if one assumes that the story takes place after the Civil War, and that the blacks are sharecroppers, the situation is pretty benign. There have always been accusations that this is equally problematic, that a rosy picture of white masters and black servants is being depicted. Picketers at the time of the film’s initial postWorld War II release cried “That we fought for Uncle Sam, not Uncle Tom.” But this point of view ignores the utter artificiality of the scenario on every level. The relationships are too personal for such an interpretation, and actually yield to a few subversive and noteworthy instances of social commentary throughout the film.

When Miss Sally scolds Uncle Remus, she realizes that she’s gone too far and clearly regrets it. She appears to be about to apologize, but stops herself. There’s also the matter of invit-ing Ginny to Johnny’s birthday party. Miss Sally tries to dissuade Johnny. The implication is that, being from a family of sharecroppers, she doesn’t really belong. It’s an interesting comment on class differences, of which Johnny has no conception.

The mention by Johnny’s father in the carriage at the beginning of the film is also fraught with implication. The reference to the trouble from the newspaper articles is ominous, and it’s hard not to assume that Johnny’s father is some kind of liberal reformer. Being a time prior to the Civil War, it’s equally hard to imagine exactly what he’s interested in reforming, but reality is less of an issue than how the characters are perceived. Undeniably, “Song of the South” is no more about slavery or the real antebellum south than 50’s sci-fi is about science and tech-nology. The film seems to take place, as do so many from this period, in a pristine storybook fairyland. The brilliant Technicolor is part of this, as well as the sets themselves. Every-thing is too perfect, and the exteriors don’t even appear to be taking place outside. Although Uncle Remus and the Hattie McDaniel character do speak in a typical southern black English, it’s substantially muted, and when Remus sings, he employs a perfect, almost operatic elocution. There’s nothing indicating that they, or anyone else, are actual slaves. They appear to be merely servants. Their songs are also inauthentic, sounding like those of the typical Hollywood musical of the time, which of course they are. As a Disney spokesman said publicly at the time of the 1986 re-release, “It’s not an authentic portrayal of any-thing.” On the other hand, for a glimpse of some truly objec-tionable caricatures, look at the gestures or mannerisms of, say, Stepin Fetchit or Amos ‘n Andy, all of whom, by the way, have been well-represented by appearances on television and home video since their inception.

If the film has any villains, it’s the Faver boys, who are presented as white trash, complete with tattered clothes and no shoes. The drama of virtually every scene in which they appear is constructed to be at their expense, and they’re the only totally unsympathetic characters in the story. Johnny is no prize either, but much of that is due to the heightened, artificial acting style of child actors of the time. It’s Uncle Remus we care about and identify with, for he’s the boy’s surrogate father, protector and mentor. Once again, one can complain of the innocent, revisionist nature of the film and its much-loved literary source. But black critics have often complained equally about serious academic endeavors in which slavery was depicted realistically. A proposed Smithsonian exhibit several years ago on the subject was protested on the basis that this was not the “image” that blacks wanted to see of themselves. A current project to create a museum of African-American history has also been conflicted by the question of how to depict slavery. However, a few years ago, a small yet horrifyingly brutal photo exhibit on lynching made its way around the country and was enthusiastically well-attended by huge crowds of both races, precisely because it was so soberingly honest.

So, fortunately, the truth will come out. Eventually.

There’s an implication that these so-called negative images or stereotypes convey some kind of message about the subordinate nature of blacks, as if the intent is advocacy instead of drama.

This is an absurd concept, which forms most of the bases for these kinds of cultural battles. Thus, phrases such as “rein-forcing stereotypes” and “negative images” are flogged to the point of knee-jerk self-parody. If every character in a target film like “Song of the South” reinforces a stereotype and every scene is full of negative images, then the concept ceases to mean anything, if it ever did in the first place. There’s also a convenient failure to point out that the white characters are just as stereotypical as the black characters. It’s so common to hear how instructive movies are that to oppose this impression is to appear to stick one’s head in the sand.

But what of stereotypes? The very word is now synonymous with outraged condemnation. This is a serious problem. All one has to do to denounce a film or place it in a negative light is make an accusation of stereotyping. It’s a pejorative term. But a stereotype is merely a standard character. Most actors throughout the golden age of Hollywood made their livings playing stereotypes. Edward Arnold was often the stern father, under-standing mentor or ruthless banker, as he was most famously in “It’s a Wonderful life.” C. Aubrey Smith was always the fatherly aristocrat, the personification of a beneficent British empire. In over a dozen Sherlock Holmes films, Nigel Bruce was the avuncular friend and sidekick. Ralph Bellamy was the all-around good guy who lost the girl in so many films that other films made reference to it as an in-joke. Dwight Frye, famous as Renfield in “Frankenstein,” played nothing but nervous lunatics.

In fact, most major stars played stereotypes as well. Most of the characters played by Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart or Katherine Hepburn were just as standard. Yes, they were the leads in their films and benefited from a little more shading and complexity. But they each played, with a few odd exceptions, extensions of the persona that the studios had decided they could best handle. Most were not allowed to play against type more than once in a while. Olivia De Havilland waged a major battle with Louis B. Mayer of MGM to be able to shuck off her sweet, wholesome on-screen persona. The reason audiences wanted to be cool and jaded like Bogie or plucky and tough like Rosalind Russell is because they embodied those traits over and over again. Cinematic drama, and to a lesser extent, most forms of drama, is made up of stereotypes. It’s too superficial to be able to handle too much complexity and contradiction in its characters. There’s simply no time to plumb the depths of human emotion and psychology in a ninety minute comedy or a two-hour drama.

When it comes to black characters, as opposed to white ones, cultural critics seem to have already determined that they can’t be anything but stereotypes, in the negative sense. Actually sitting down and judging a given film that’s been painted with this brush is to see that they’re no more standard than any other characters. Often, the filmmakers go out of their way to avoid stereotypes, drama be damned, purely to avoid criticism. It doesn’t matter, the accusations are so automatic as to seem mandatory. Either that or they go in the opposite direction, to condemn the filmmakers, usually with just as much vitriol, of “conspicuously avoiding offense.” They just can’t win. Creating a legitimate black character seems to take a Manhattan Project of meticulous care. But I have yet to see any of these objectional stereotypes. The claims are always absurd. I’m sure I could view any film written and directed by a black filmmaker and lodge the same criticism at its own black characters, or more perverse-ly, at its negatively stereotypical white characters. Why not, if that’s the game we’re playing?

The essence of the issue is the insidious substitution of stereotype for what is really meant here: caricature. But none of these characters comes close to caricature, and if they did, they would be dramatically incongruous to the stories being told. Unless the films in question are animated cartoons, which are supposed to be made up of caricatures, they have to be legitimate or make no sense in that context. Mammy and Prissy in “Gone with the Wind” are stereotypical, but not caricatures. They actually have a lot of personality, much more than that story required, and are fan favorites. Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara’s father are also pretty standard. We don’t really notice because the sheer force of personality that both Clark Gable and Thomas Mitchell bring to those roles. Even Scarlett herself is pretty familiar. But because she’s the center of the nearly four hour film, there’s more time than usual to give her more complexity than the usual romance novel heroine. A lot of credit must also go to Vivien Leigh, a phenomenal actress getting the most out of a starmaking role. If any of these characters had been caricatures, the film would’ve fallen apart in the first hour and seemed interminable.

Uncle Remus may indeed be a stereotype, the wise thoughtful black man mentoring the impulsive, inexperienced white boy. But these are dramatic stereotypes and scenarios, not racial ones. They speak, not to the forced limitations of real people, but to the narrow parameters of storytelling. Uncle Remus is no more of a stereotype than a dozen John Wayne heroes or Conrad Veidt vil-lains. That he becomes a guardian and surrogate father to Johnny takes that stereotype into what is actually revolutionary territory. Would a real plantation boy have been allowed to develop such a familiar relationship with an actual slave?

Todd Boyd, a USC film professor, has labeled SOTS “a very racist film,” condemning Uncle Remus as another “passive, non-threatening slave.” Professor Boyd is merely taking advantage of the opportunity to protest the film and hawk the academic party line. Even worse, film critic Roger Ebert, in a shameless act of patrician condescension, wants the film restricted to a highly selective scholarly audience. Apparently, the general public is simply not responsible enough to see the film unsupervised. “I’d hate to be an African-American child going to school on the day after its release,” goes his argument. This sounds suspiciously like the old Catholic Legion of Decency’s practice of viewing films to see if they’re suitable for everyone else. Come on. If a few priests can watch a film and come away unscathed, so can the rest of us. No doubt the same critics would defend the buffoonish images and behavior of gangsta rappers. Why is Uncle Remus an unforgivable stereotype, but not Tupac, with his gold jewelry and doo-rag, not to mention his stereotypically hip-hop demise?

Even celebrated and revolutionary characters, both black and white, become stereotypes by default. “Raisin in the Sun” was shattering and revolutionary in its time, and the lead in the film, played by Sidney Poitier, jumped off the screen with his ferocious honesty. But by the 70’s, this character, the angry black rebel ready to explode, had become so standard that it bordered on self-parody. The character of the long-suffering religious mother was also pretty hoary by then as well. They both were even the objects of ridicule in a satirical play by George C. Wolfe, and subsequently, a hilarious Saturday Night Live sketch in which not only the characters were parodied, but the melodramatic, scenery chewing acting style to boot. Nowa-days, these sorts of standard characters would no doubt be met only with laughter by black audiences. Familiarity really does breed contempt.

This underscores the ephemeral nature of commercial drama. As important and revolutionary as a play or a movie may seem at the time, its effect is always rendered of lesser significance later. When the Cosby Show came along in the 80’s, black audi-ences welcomed, and even celebrated, its depiction of “these positive role models.” Cosby and Phylicia Rashad played highly cultured professionals, a doctor and lawyer, living in a nice brownstone of their own, in an affluent, racially diverse Brooklyn neighborhood. After a few years, when the show had become just another part of the cultural landscape, black critics and pundits once again denounced the show as an unrealistic portrayal of black life with which few black families had anything in common. The show was seen almost as a cruel taunt to the thousands of blacks struggling to break into the middle classes, let alone the upper class. It’s also interesting to note that Cosby’s own famous Saturday morning cartoon of the early 70’s, “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids,” was full of stereotypes. But nobody cared back then. It was a good show, endearing, funny and irreverent, even with the earnest lesson that Cosby himself summed up on-screen at the end of each show, followed by a song played by the kids, of course.

What does it say about our time, then, with its alarmist self-righteous indignation and moral superiority making their shrill presence known at every conceivable opportunity, as opposed to the previous one, a much more thoughtful era, in which the ability to maintain a distance from the content of its popu-lar art created some of the best films and TV shows in American cultural history? Because of this lack of obsession with score keeping and ethnic cheerleading, there was also much more crossover interest back then. Despite the fact that there were no white characters on “Fat Albert,” white kids, myself included, watched it faithfully. On the other side, the Isley Brothers 1971 album, “Givin’ It Back,” included covers of songs by white folk artists such as Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Stephen Stills and Neil Young. We can hardly imagine a black group doing that now. Even more astonishing is the 1969 song by country music legend Merle Haggard, “Irma Jackson,” an ode to unrequited interracial romance. C & W stars would never do such a tune today. Less due to the touchy subject matter, but merely because of their narrowly focused, narcissistic sensibilities and marketing demographics. Before the left took haughty possession of “diversity” as its highly guarded political territory, American culture actually was diverse. It was the hair-splitting oversensitivity and constant accusations to the contrary that turned a natural aspect of all culture into a political and cultural minefield.

This brings us to the next issue, and perhaps the most important, the contradictory impulse among black Americans to both celebrate and reject the full depth and breadth of their rich history. Discomfort with slave images are understandable, especially since slavery is so recent. It hardly seems the dusty, distant stuff of ancient history, which is no longer taken so personally. Perhaps, as the twenty-first century evolves, the same result will occur. But for the moment, when elderly blacks still have first hand knowledge of Jim Crow and their own grand-parents were ex-slaves, there can be little change. It’s too close and too painful. American blacks have been trying to leave this horrible legacy behind for the last century. They don’t want it to be a reflection of them, and thus the chief basis on which they’re perceived.

But this has created an unfortunate impetus among blacks to completely reject their culture and history. There’s always a question of what it means to be black, or whether one is “black enough.” Despite the impassioned overtures by black intellec-tuals about the importance of education, there remains a persistent discomfort with academic accomplishment. Articulate blacks are still accused of “talking white” by their peers. Anything that compromises one’s street cred is rejected, or is at least the source of great inner conflict, for fear of alienating the larger black community. Visit any college with a minority of black students and they’ll be seen eating and socializing together. This was well-documented in the 1997 book, “Why Are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” More interesting, however, is the occurrence of the few black students who seem to float casually between the smaller black group and the larger white one. They’re invariably criticized by their fellow black students, who resent their comfort and familiarity with both student communities. They no doubt wish they could do the same, but simply don’t know how. They don’t even try, assuming that they have nothing in common with whites and cannot possibly be friends with them. The whites often make the same assumption, but they have less to lose in the equation. The fact is, the blacks, living in an essentially white society, are obligated to bridge that gap, or risk permanently limiting their professional futures.

The true problem is a masochistic self-consciousness, as if blacks are simply too aware of their blackness. The best example of this on film is “A Soldier’s Story.” The Sarge, played by Adolph Caesar, is alternately protective and contemptuous of CJ, an unsophisticated country boy. He’s the best player on the company baseball team, as well as an affecting blues singer and guitar player. Sarge both hates and loves CJ’s simple, natural talents, and his unself-conscious good nature. CJ embodies the limitations of being black, as Sarge sees them. At times, he can’t stand CJ’s very presence. He chastises him, demanding that he “Cut out that guitar-pickin’-sittin’-’round-the-shack music!” It’s painful to watch Sarge’s descent into bitterness, but that’s the point of the film. More so than it’s murder mystery plot. Sarge is so aware of his blackness that his self-hatred causes CJ to commit suicide and results in his own murder.

Now one might argue that the larger white society makes this so, and in many situations, this is true. But blacks would probably be amazed by the many situations in which this assumption is theirs alone. And even those that have a racial aspect, do not have a racist one. In a recent book about black/white relations, it was pointed out that it’s an insult for white women to run their fingers through their long hair in the presence of black women. The real question there is why the hell are black women so interested in the hair of white women? I would sincerely doubt that they are, and the writer is making another of these bogus academic assertions. One can only imagine the reaction to a white academic making such a statement as, When black people dance in the presence of whites, it’s an insult to them.

The problem is that ethnicity is both vastly overrated and, in a smaller sense, equally underrated. Ultimately, no one can say what engages, inspires and teaches us. To assume that people have a deeper understanding of “their” culture, or are more motivated by positive examples of it is a ridiculous illusion. If we believe, as the so-called tolerant among us propose, that race is a fiction and has no value, then no one can say they even have a specific culture, much less have some greater connection to it or gain a more profound sense of self from it. Suzan-Lori Parks, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright of the recently acclaimed “Topdog/Underdog,” mentioned in the New York Times that she had a great artistic epiphany upon finally reading and understanding Shakespeare. Similarly, Martin Scorcese was inspired in the mid-fifties by the Apu trilogy of Indian film director Satyjit Ray. He remarked that the simple stories of working class city life reminded him of both Italian neo-realist films and life in his parents’ small lower Manhattan neighborhood. Words and images speak to us because of who we are as individuals, not as members of huge groups. Tell me you are black, white, Catholic, Jewish, etc. and you have told me next to nothing. That’s the starting line, not the finish. One might even go so far as to say that the more distant, or foreign, a culture is, the more it is likely to affect us, for we’re able to see it as a distinct whole, enormous and overwhelming, precisely because it’s so new and different. We also do not have a vested interest in it and are more open to its seductions. Whereas the burden of our own culture is often resented for our obligations to it. It’s something we have to live up to and become custodian of, thereby neutralizing most of its allure and power.

The only way to really deflate the racial aspects of culture is to ignore them. As Cornel West points out in “Race Matters,” a race consciousness, a continual search for what he terms black authenticity, will always lead people astray. Instead of objective judgement and moral reasoning, an oversensitivity and ultra-awareness of all things racial produces a lack of meaningful and lasting accomplishment. The intellectual cheap thrill that comes from accusations of racism only leaves the accuser empty and frustrated. Racially fetishistic acts such as the “Million Man March” appeal to the ego and actually bring nothing to the black community. One can see the appeal, but if ever there were a pyrrhic victory, that’s it. And there wasn’t just one of these marches, but quite a few, until the very idea became a joke. But then it’s much easier to attempt to shame others into action than doing something yourself. One has to wonder if the explosion of superficial protest, the politics of outrage, the culture wars, etc., aren’t merely a desperate cover-up for the confusion and impotence brought on by matters of racial inequality. Now that we know all too well just how pervasive and complex the depth and destruction of racism are, honestly, what can we do about it? One either believes in the uniform equality of humanity or one does not. The concept cannot be taught, and only the hardcore racist can change himself.

The practical denunciation and banning of “Song of the South” is, in essence, hitting a very small nail with a huge hammer. Disney would no doubt further defend itself by the claim that it does not wish to be seen making money from such a questionable source. It might go so far as to claim that it doesn’t even want to actually make money from such a questionable source. But this, alas, is not the case, for the company makes a lot on “Song of the South.” Millions of people visit Disney World every year. One of its major attractions is Splash Mountain. Along with Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s probably the most famous and popular of rides. The company only recently found a way to fully exploit Pirates with a blockbuster summer film of the same name. But it has been eagerly exploiting Splash Mountain for decades.

The ride isn’t based on any story, film or book in the Disney cannon, not directly. But the company pretends that it is, for its family friendly characters are none other than Brer Rabbit, Brer Bear and ornery ol’ Brer Fox, from “Song of the South.” Uncle Remus, however, is conspicuously absent. It’s a tribute to Disney’s marketing that it has managed to extract the nostalgia and animation from the film that dare not speak its name, while completely abandoning their supposedly embarrassing source. Mi-raculously, the ride is advertised and conducted as if it has nothing to do with “Song of the South.” One almost has to simply stand back and applaud such a seamless act of commercial sleight of hand.

Under the radar of the academics and cultural critics who’d
excoriate SOTS and Disney, the film is, and has been, a huge industry. It makes millions for Disney despite all the hoopla, and the company’s scrupulous manipulation of its squeaky clean reputation. For some reason, the emblematic use of the SOTS characters at a major theme park ride continues to escape notice.

It’s all the more peculiar considering that there’s no natural connection between Splash Mountain and the briar patch characters of the Joel Chandler Harris stories. Conversely, there is no Splash Mountain among Disney lore either. It comes from no book, no movie, no cartoon short. The Splash Mountain ride is the re-ult of a much more conventional theme park need, the roller coaster. How could the intended best and most famous amusement park in the world, when it was built, not have a roller coaster? In many ways, the roller coaster is what has always defined the amusement park. Coney Island had, and still has, the Cyclone. In fact, it’s probably what keeps that rickety, obsolete old park from being torn down. Disney World had to have something comparable. Being in a warm weather beach setting, this signature attraction also had to reflect that virtually year-round feature. It needed some kind of water-oriented coaster that was unlike any ride anywhere else.

Unfortunately for its synergistic impulses, the company had never set a story on or around a water slide or a big lagoon it could exploit. So it just made one up and pretended that it was as much a beloved favorite of the Magic Kingdom as Mickey Mouse or the ominous castle in “Sleeping Beauty.” A flume, the ride is magnificent and a lot of fun, a must for any visitor. One sits in a log-shaped car, slides down a long chute, and plunges into a man-made lake. It’s a lot more exhilarating than diving into a briar patch. But this isn’t enough in terms of the Disney experience. Without corresponding animated characters, there’s less identification and therefore less of a connection, especi-ally for children. Fortunately, some were available. Brer Rabbit, Fox and Bear weren’t otherwise occupied. Neither were Uncle Remus and the Tar Baby, but they were summarily dismissed from the Splash Mountain setting a while back after some minor criticism regarding their inappropriate nature.

Characters also provide something else essential to the Disney experience, souvenirs. The SOTS characters have been com-pletely severed from their cinematic origins, freeing them for the aggressive marketing that is now a crucial source of revenue in the entertainment business. Ancillary sales, as it’s known, including cable and video, often total more than domestic box office for new films. For older and classic films, the exploitation of nostalgia can turn into a virtually neverending stream of money. Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Bear represent Splash Mountain and Disney World in the form of everything from key chains and fridge magnets to figurines and stuffed animals. Do not underestimate this area of commercial representation. It has gone beyond a consolatory trinket to appease the kiddies on the way home after they’ve been torn away from the park, to become an end in itself. These items make millions. Action figures alone are so essential to the fan base of an entertainment product that it seems only network news anchors aren’t represented by them. Walk into a comic shop or toy store and prepare to be astonished, truly astonished, by the number of action figures. No longer reserved for the biggest stars and blockbuster films, they exist for “Reservoir Dogs,” “Clerks,” “The Osbournes,” Fritz Lang’s silent “Metropolis,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” you-name-it. They even have them for Sigmund Freud and Edgar Allan Poe. No doubt, some toys support their films, rather than the other way around.

The story continues in part three of THE COMING AND PASSING OF “SONG OF THE SOUTH”>>>

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  1. Scotty says:

    Please get your facts straight.

    Olivia de Havilland had nothing to do with Louis B. Mayer. The studio mogul you meant to mention was Jack L. Warner at Warner Bros. He was the one who kept de Havilland under studio contract in “sweet” heroine roles as the love interest for Errol Flynn and other Warner stars. She was never under contract to Mayer at MGM.

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