As the Weekly’s Scott Foundas has noted, the newly minted Disney cartoon feature The Princess and the Frog is meant to be taken as “symbolic reparation” for the presumed insult of the studio’s 1946 animation-plus-live-action hit Song of the South. Speaking as an African-American who has always had a fondness for the latter, while being confounded by the critical fealty recently accorded the former (to say nothing of the grotesque Oprah Winfrey– and Tyler Perry–presented exploitation programmer Precious), I think it’s high time Song of the South was examined more closely. Though its hit song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” won a 1947 Academy Award, the movie has never been released on home video in the U.S., where today Song of the South is virtually verboten.
Despite a few theatrical re-releases over the years (the most recent in 1986), the film remains largely unseen by several generations. There are many places one can go on the Web to purchase bootleg copies manufactured from a long out-of-print Japanese laser disc, and another Web site, “Song of the South News,”is devoted to the hope of an official U.S. video release. But Disney is not at all anxious to make that happen. Clearly, The Princess and the Frog, with its tale of a Jazz Age striver who longs to open a restaurant, is one thing, whereas Song and its Civil War–era story of childhood trauma is something else entirely.
Inspired by the stories collected by folklorist Joel Chandler Harris, which were themselves derived from African tales of a far more dire demeanor, Song of the South sought to contextualize the cartoon-ready escapades of wily Br’er Rabbit, the perpetually outwitted Br’er Fox and the dim-witted Br’er Bear through a framing story involving Harris’ fictional interpolator, Uncle Remus. Played with considerable grace by James Baskett (who won a “special” Oscar for his performance), this truly magical “Magic Negro” screamed stereotype to some, but overall was the least of the project’s problems. As Disney publicist Vern Caldwell wrote to associate producer Perce Pearce just before shooting began, “The negro situation is a dangerous one. Between the negro haters and the negro lovers there are many chances to run afoul of situations that could run the gamut all the way from the nasty to the controversial.” It was the latter that emerged when, upon the film’s release, the NAACP acknowledged Song’s “remarkable artistic merit,” but decried the “impression it gives of an idyllic master-slave relationship.” This is particularly interesting in light of the fact that Song of the South is in no way clear about its specific historical context.
If the film is meant to be taking place before the Civil War, then Uncle Remus, Aunt Tempy (the great Hattie McDaniel) and the other black workers we occasionally see going to and from the fields are slaves. If it’s after the war, then they’re “tenant farmers.” In either case, the film has nothing to say about slavery or “Jim Crow” segregation, which was very much in effect in 1946, prohibiting Baskett from attending the film’s Atlanta premiere, just as McDaniel had been from attending the Gone With the Wind premiere a decade before. Set in 1920s New Orleans, The Princess and the Frog similarly obfuscates Jim Crow, but being that it’s all about food — and a little girl’s dream of sexless romance — the movie is noncontroversial by design. By contrast, Song of the South explicates the unguilty conscience of white America through its insistence on repressing racist history, even while continuing it in “benign” form.
In many ways Gone With the Wind had itself been an act of symbolic reparation for D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. Instead of the undisguised racism of Griffith’s film, David O. Selznick’s lavish production dramatized the rise of the Ku Klux Klan without ever mentioning the murderous organization by name and by failing to have any of the “vigilantes” depicted in Wind’s second half wear white hoods, or lynch blacks, as they go about dealing with unidentified “troublemakers.”
Song of the South has no such characters. It’s about a young boy named Johnny (Bobby Driscoll), who comes to live with his mother on his grandmother’s plantation while his father returns to Atlanta for reasons that aren’t made clear. (They don’t have to be, as Johnny’s plight echoes that of children in the film’s first audiences, whose fathers had been taken away by the just-completed World War II.) The tales Uncle Remus tells Johnny strengthen the boy’s character and help him confront the bullying offspring of white tenant farmers. Dealing with bullies and gaining personal resolve are quite timeless matters for children, but having an Uncle Remus to turn to is another matter.
When he arrives at the plantation, Johnny asks, “Is Uncle Remus real?” indicating that this apparent servant’s legend has already traveled far and wide. Indeed it has, and not just for Johnny. For the entire purpose of African-Americans — in life as well as in art — is to soothe the troubled souls of whites. McDaniel’s Mammy did it in Gone With the Wind. And so does Oprah today. The fourth-estate consternation greeting Winfrey’s recent announcement that she is bringing her long-running talk show to a close was reminiscent of nothing so much as Johnny’s sorrow at Uncle Remus’ departure in Song’s last quarter. Consequently, the time is ripe for Song of the South’s return, as disenchantment with President Obama grows on the left, just as his very existence has unleashed a tsunami of racism on the right. A chorus of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” might well do him a world of good, don’t you think? For if Disney can transform the slime pit of New York’s 42nd Street into a haven for family entertainment, then surely it can end the wars, restore the economy and create jobs for the thousands who’ve been fired. Right?
Of course it can’t. But in the popular cultural imagination, Uncle Walt has come to be seen as a panacea on par with Uncle Remus himself. As usual in fantasy-besotted America, “It’s the truth, it’s natural,” especially when everything is considerably less than “satisfactual.”