History is not dead, but is constantly reinterpreted through the arts. Can we relate to earlier interpretations despite their controversy?
Song of the South, produced by Walt Disney for RKO Pictures in 1946, was one of the first films to combine live action with animation, allowing actors to interact with imaginary characters. Audiences had been delighted the year before by the sight of Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry Mouse in Anchors Aweigh, so the time was ripe for a film that made extensive use of this novel technique. Unfortunately, Song of the South would become more famous for its controversial picture of race relations than for its beautiful cutting edge technology. To date, Disney has not released the film on video in the United States.
Walt Disney had been interested in Joel Chandler Harris‘s Stories of Uncle Remus for years. Joe Harris was a journalist in Atlanta who championed racial reconciliation during the Reconstruction period after the American Civil War. As Joel Chandler Harris, he published numerous stories collected and inspired from African American folklore, seeking to preserve evidence of a period of time that he feared history would distort.
Little Johnny’s father in Song of the South is no doubt patterned after Harris, as he also works for a newspaper in Atlanta, where he writes pieces that stir people up and make them angry. Even his wife is exasperated with him. We are never told the exact nature of his work, but are kept with Johnny in a magical bubble protected from adult reality. All we know is that things have gotten too hot in Atlanta for Johnny and his mother, who seek refuge at the plantation owned by his paternal grandmother. This is the first of many such omissions that make the film difficult to swallow, especially for modern audiences. In fact, the film does precisely what Harris, dead since 1908, had feared. It whitewashes history and fills it with awkward silences.
Some scholars have pointed fingers at Harris, saying he was a white writer of limited skill who stole stories from the African American community and used them for his own gain. “Harris went to the world as the trickster Brer Rabbit, and in the trickster Uncle Remus he projected both his sharpest critique of things as they were and the deepest image of his heart’s desire,” said critic Robert Cochran. Was his motivation to steal from African American culture or was it to join with its dissenting voice to satirize and disparage a southern oligarchy that he despised? Harris grew up an orphaned son of immigrants and spent his teenage years working on a plantation, where he felt more comfortable in the slave’s quarters than among Southern whites. He did not write kindly of the Southern gentleman and dared to speak positively about intermarriage between races, which was considered criminal at the time and referred to by the pejorative term “miscegenation“. Reading his stories today, one might balk at the use of dialect and stereotypes, but, for his time, Harris was on the progressive side of history. Even in 1946 his leanings were not exactly mainstream.
The original screenplay for Song of the South was written by Dalton Reymond, who hailed from the South, specifically Louisiana. It was the story of Johnny, a young boy on the verge of running away because of tension he perceives between his parents, who is comforted by the stories of Uncle Remus, an elderly African American who befriends him. When Remus’s stories inspire Johnny to disobey his mother in order to help a poor white sharecropper’s daughter, mother orders the old man to leave the plantation, with disastrous effects that almost cost Johnny’s life. This story, built to couch Harris’s fables, is tepid and preachy, while Uncle Remus’s “critters” seem much more immediate and exciting.
Video clip via Aidan Ralph on YouTube.
Fearing that Reymond’s work might be too conservative, Disney hired left-leaning Maurice Rapf to rework the piece. Rapf didn’t initially want to do it; he was afraid the piece would be in the mode of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, full of racial stereotypes. He was later fired from the film after a squabble with Reymond, which proved his own misgivings correct as well as those of Disney. In 1947, Rapf was blacklisted for having been a member of the Communist party and his career in Hollywood ended. The uneasy relationship between Rapf and Reymond contributed to omissions and incongruities in the film as they continually vetoed each other’s ideas.
So why did the stories of Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear appeal to Americans after World War II? These are fables that show how a small character, quick on his feet and sharp-witted (Rabbit), can defeat a conniving and wicked one (Fox) paired with a large, stupid bully (Bear). This philosophy encouraged one of the more hopeful currents prevailing in the American psyche: that the United States had outfoxed the Germans, Japanese and Italians and brought World War II to an end. As Uncle Remus says at the beginning of the film, “Them what can’t learn from a tale about critters, just ain’t got their ears tuned for listening.” The moral here is that any means of defeating an evil enemy is justified, even if it requires doing something “tricky” like the irrepressible and ever lovable Br’er Rabbit. And yet Uncle Remus warns that Rabbit wouldn’t get himself into trouble if he didn’t go looking for it. Could there be isolationist sentiment along with war time guilt brewing somewhere under the surface of this children’s film? If so, it certainly hid these things with a happy smile.
Video clip via MegaRock64 on YouTube.
The stories of Uncle Remus are entertaining, beautifully shot and animated, as are the musical numbers. Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah, which went to filming before it had been blocked, is a incredible classic, with animated animals as back-up to James Baskett‘s heartfelt singing. It won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 1946 and was something of an unofficial anthem for the Disney Studios for many years. The imagination and confident ease with which Baskett delivered the song, clearly visualizing animals who had not yet been placed in the scene, is a true marvel and testament to his acting and performing genius. It is the animator’s skill, the lively voicing of Rabbit, Fox, and Bear, and Baskett’s loving portrayal of Remus, despite the stereotypical nature of the role, that render this film watchable and give it its best moments.
In a cruel turn of events, Baskett was not able to attend opening night of Song of the South because Atlanta was segregated and no hotel would book an African American. To his credit, Walt Disney actively campaigned for an Oscar for Baskett, revealing that the actor frequently worked without direction and praising him as one of the finest actors with whom he had ever worked. In 1948, James Baskett became the first African American man to win an Oscar, which he received in honor of his portrayal of Uncle Remus and voicing of Br’er Fox two years earlier. Less than six months later he was dead of heart disease at the age of 44.
Song of the South can be applauded for making the case that white Americans have something to learn from African Americans, however clumsily it did so. These folk tales, which came from people that had endured oppression, had a great deal of value to a nation recovering from war. What is awkward is that the film wants to acknowledge that wisdom without recognizing the oppression. Set during Reconstruction, the film presents happy-go-lucky sharecroppers who sing and dance and get along with their former masters with hardly a hint of strife. This is not realistic. Slavery did not end quickly and easily at the close of the Civil War. The attitudes that made slavery possible still persist in some areas. Slaves that were freed often found themselves doing backbreaking work for little pay and less respect under bosses who still looked at them as slaves and were frustrated that the government no longer supported that view. Uncle Remus comes across as a magical character rather than a plausible portrait of an African American male living in post Civil War Georgia, a strange cross between a grandfather and a fairy. Perhaps the most baffling moment occurs when Remus tells Johnny that there was a better time in the past, when man was closer to nature. This nostalgia coming from a freed slave seems misplaced and insensitive and doesn’t agree with the film’s narrative. Aren’t these the good times at the magic plantation? Perhaps this is an artifact of Rapf’s left-wing sympathies telling us that all is not well.
This is not the only difficulty. If we accept that Johnny’s father, like Harris, is a man who writes about racial inequality in the south, then why is he presented in such a poor light for sticking to his writing and staying behind in Atlanta? Grandmother, who we are told likes the things he writes in the papers, cheers him on at the end when he abandons his post to care for his own family, giving up his inflammatory journalism. Apparently standing up for other’s rights is not a worthy cause if doing so threatens your own family. Then again, there is no racial conflict at the magic plantation, so an escape to that reality provides a convenient end to the story.
If we learn anything from America in 1946, let it be that hardship brings people of different backgrounds closer together. In the decades since we have come to understand that we only remain together if there is appreciation and understanding for who we are without that particular hardship. When the emergency is over, we have to deal with the difficulties that still exist. Fables, which evolve as human understanding changes, are not an escape from reality, but a preparation for it. As Uncle Remus tells Johnny, “You can’t run away from trouble. There ain’t no place that far.”
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