Wednesday, May 10, 2006

"Song of the South"

[Some people say Stephen Merritt of the Magnetic Fields is racist because he doesn't like hip-hop and because he really likes "Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah," the hit song from this controversial Disney movie.]
Song of the South is a feature film produced by Walt Disney Productions, released on November 12, 1946 by RKO Radio Pictures and based on the Uncle Remus cycle of stories by Joel Chandler Harris. It was one of Walt Disney's earliest feature films to combine live action footage with animation and was the first Disney feature film in which live actors were hired for lead roles. The live actors provide a sentimental frame-story, in which Uncle Remus relates the folk tales of the adventures of Brer Rabbit and his friends; these anthropomorphic animal characters appear in animation. The film is often the subject of controversy, because of content which is considered by some to be racially insensitive towards African-Americans. It has never been released in the U.S. on DVD or home video, and is thus subject to much rumor and speculation. There is a Japanese subtitled version available.

Plot [Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.]

The setting is the Southern United States, in a "dream time" shortly after the American Civil War, which folklorist Patricia A. Turner characterizes as happening "during a surreal time when blacks lived on quarters on a plantation, worked diligently for no visible reward and considered Atlanta a viable place for an old black man to set out for."

The frame tale does not follow the original framing narrative by Harris. While Disney Studios tried to avoid the more offensive stereotypes of African Americans still common in the 1940s, Disney also tried to make sure that nothing in the film would be objected to by the white segregationists then in political and cultural control of the Southern United States. This resulted in the subservient relationships of the black children towards white child Johnny, played by child star Bobby Driscoll, in his Fauntleroy suit, that are particularly stilted and perhaps unintentionally revealing. Few recent critics found the results of this attempted balancing act successful, though it passed without comment in 1946, aside from a mild rebuke from the NAACP. Blacks are shown as subservient to whites, and singing contentedly about "home". The framing story has therefore been accused of idealizing the harsh lives of blacks on rural southern plantations in the Jim Crow era.

The hit song from the film was "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah", which won the 1947 Academy Award for Best Song....

Although the film has been re-released several times (most recently in 1986 in the United States), Disney has avoided making it available on home video tape in the United States or DVD anywhere because the frame story was deemed controversial by studio management. Film critic Roger Ebert has supported this position, claiming that most Disney films become a part of the consciousness of American children, who take films more literally than do adults. [1] The film has been released on video in various European and Asian countries. In the U.S., only excerpts from the animated segments have ever appeared in Disney's DVDs and television shows, and the popular log-flume attraction Splash Mountain is based upon the same animated portions.

Despite rumors of a forthcoming DVD release, this exchange took place between a shareholder and Disney CEO Robert Iger on Friday, March 10, 2006 at a Disney Shareholder Meeting:[2]

"My name is Howard Cromer. I live in Cypress, I'm a Disney shareholder. I'm actually delivering a message from my son, 10. He wants to know in recent years, in the midst of all your re-releases of your videos, why you haven't released Song of the South on your Disney Classics?" [Applause] "And, he wonders why. Frank Wells told me many years ago that it would be coming out. Well obviously Frank Wells isn't around anymore, so we still wonder why. And by the way, Mr. Iger, he thinks it was a very good choice when they made you CEO of Disney." [Applause]

Iger: "Thank you very much. You may change your mind when I answer your question, though. Um... we've discussed this a lot. We believe it's actually an opportunity from a financial perspective to put Song of the South out. I screened it fairly recently because I hadn't seen it since I was a child, and I have to tell you after I watched it, even considering the context that it was made, I had some concerns about it because of what it depicted. And thought it's quite possible that people wouldn't consider it in the context that it was made, and there were some... [long pause] depictions that I mentioned earlier in the film that I think would be bothersome to a lot of people. And so, owing to the sensitivity that exists in our culture, balancing it with the desire to, uh, maybe increase our earnings a bit, but never putting that in front of what we thought were our ethics and our integrity, we made the decision not to re-release it. Not a decision that is made forever, I imagine this is gonna continue to come up, but for now we simply don't have plans to bring it back because of the sensitivities that I mentioned. Sorry."

Thus, the Disney company will not be releasing the film in the U.S. in the near future. The Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah and Brer Rabbit tricking Brer Fox into the trap scenes are found in the 1950 special "One Hour in Wonderland" included on the 2004 two-disc release of Alice in Wonderland.


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