Saturday, May 02, 2020

MOVIE REVIEW: "Song of the South"

"Song of the South" has a reputation of bigotry and cultural blindness. The 1946 Disney animated/live-action mashup has never been released on home video, and it's easy to see why.

The movie abounds with cultural insensitivity that could be classified as racist. Although it's purportedly set in 1870 Reconstruction-era Georgia, there is no clear mention of the setting, making it easy to confuse the setting with pre-Civil War times of slavery. The joyous singing of characters meant to have been sharecroppers could be viewed as slaves who were content with their treatment.

There is also a brutally indefensible animated fable of a baby constructed of tar and meant to be a decoy of a black child.

The movie's screenplay and songs were written by white people, based on the Uncle Remus stories published by author Joel Chandler Harris, a white man who was known to defended slavery. While the movie's live-action and voice cast gave hard-to-come-by-at-the-time roles to people of color, there was a stark lack of diversity in the film's conception, leading to a tone-deaf, stereotype-plagued product.

Still, I believe the movie should be made available, not only for its artistic merit and historical significance but because it could be used to encourage the racial sensitivity and enlightened perspective that its filmmakers lacked. Disney could release it on home video accompanied by a disclaimer apologizing for the offensive nature of its content, as well as an introduction and commentary track from a historian or cultural authority. To prove it isn't out to make a cash grab on a racist product, Disney could even donate the proceeds to educational or charitable organizations that promote tolerance.

American film history, particularly from the mid-20th century and earlier, is filled with embarrassing examples of prejudice. The same is true, to varying degrees, of literature and music from times past. But it's important not to turn a blind eye to the past, and instead use it as a way to learn about the evolution of society and culture, using it as a prompt to evaluate the current state of things. Making offensive artwork from the past unavailable is tantamount to censorship and revisionist history.

"Song of the South" is no movie to turn on and use as a babysitter for your kids, and is probably best kept from youngsters altogether. I believe a PG-13 or R rating would be appropriate.

That said, it's clear why Disney chooses to continue to keep "Song of the South" hidden, ignoring it as a skeleton in the closet. Releasing the movie, no matter how carefully, could kick a hornet's nest of trouble that might not make sense to the corporate bottom line.

Still, there is a lingering sense that some of the powers that be in the company don't mind if the public sees the film. Unauthorized copies are online, inexplicably spared from the hatchet of the company's copyright lawyers. And then there was the 1989 creation of the Disneyland ride Splash Mountain, which is filled with characters, music and references to the film.

As other attractions have been redone and rebranded, the fact that the ride remains intact gives off a sense that a brain trust within the company has a fondness for the film, and keep the ride there as a reminder for others to seek out the movie on their own.

That's because the story is engaging, the music is good and the performances are strong. The framework is the tale of a white 7-year-old child going through a troubled time in his young life. His father drops him and his mother off with the child's plantation-owning grandmother, and he quickly bonds with a black boy and white girl his age, as well as a wise black storyteller, Uncle Remus (James Baskett).

Remus helps the boy through his troubles with folksy fables, which come alive in the classic Disney animation style. There is lighthearted comedy, emotionally resonant lessons and a jovial, kind-hearted feel. The stereotypes and sloppy cultural messaging are casual and persistent, but the coming-of-age lessons ring powerful and true.

"Song of the South" made me cringe often, but it also made me laugh and had me captivated. I'm glad I finally made my way to the film after all these years, and encourage anyone interested in film history to do the same. It's a complicated and challenging film that deserves discussion rather than burial.

RATING: 3 stars out of 4.

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