film

Zip-a-dee-doodon’t mention it

JAIME J. WEINMAN May 14 2007
film

Zip-a-dee-doodon’t mention it

JAIME J. WEINMAN May 14 2007

Zip-a-dee-doodon’t mention it

film

uct meeting, isn’t a usually corporation a 60-year-old the big holds prodtopic a of conversation. And then there’s Song of the South, the

1946 Walt Disney film (a hybrid of live action and animation) that has dominated the news from two straight Disney shareholder meetings. The news is that Disney executives could make millions of dollars by reissuing it, but they’re afraid to.

Song of the South was an adaptation of Joel Chandler Harris’s stories about the stereotypically wise and loyal black servant Uncle Remus (James Baskett). He spends most of the picture telling stories about cartoon characters who speak in pidgin dialect. In 1946, these stereotypes were mild by movie-industry standards. But 60 years later, in the age of Don Imus and Michael Richards, Disney is pushing its upcoming racially sensitive animated movie, The Frog Princess (with its first African-American heroine), and those who run the company fear that the Oscar-winning song Zip-a-dee-doo-dah may not be enough to make Song of the South acceptable.

Song of the South has never been released on home video in North America, and it’s no longer shown on TV. And yet enough people

have seen it, or at least heard about it, to make it one of the titles that fans most request from the fabled Disney Vault. At this year’s meeting in New Orleans, Robert Iger, the current chairman of the Disney corporation, was asked whether Disney had any plans to release Song of the South on DVD. Last year, he had responded to a similar question with what amounted to a no (“owing to the sensitivity that exists in our culture ... we made the decision not to re-release it”). This year, he was slightly more open to the possibility, saying that “we’ve decided to take a look it again because we’ve had numerous requests about bringing it out.” This noncommittal response became big news, inspiring articles in the Associated Press and USA Today.

Jim Hill, who runs the unofficial Disney news siteJimhillmedia.com, says: “Disney has come within inches of releasing this film three times during the past 10 years.” But every time they come close to releasing it, the executives pull back. Not only are they afraid of a possible backlash; they themselves may not think it’s right to release a movie like this. Iger said at that 2006 meeting that his “ethics and integrity” forbade him from bringing out Song of the South.

Hill adds: “You have to understand, this is California, a bunch of white liberal guys. As much as they’d love to have the money that Song of the South is going to make, they’re hesitant.”

The problem is, the money is just too tempting to pass up for long. Hill says that Disney now has a particular need for successful DVD releases, because of the limited success of their latest gimmick—the “Bluray” high-definition DVD. “They were hoping to do with Blu-ray what they did with DVD, which would allow them to resell that same library of titles again,” Hill says. Instead, with most consumers unwilling to switch over to high-def DVD, the company has to look for potential bestsellers that aren’t on DVD yet. And because scarcity increases

value, no film has more potential value than Song of the South.

THE RACIAL stereotypes in Song of the South were mild by 1946 movie standards

The usual way to release a film like this would be to provide context: an explanation of the racial attitudes of 1946 and of Harris’s time. Disney has done this with other animated films, trotting out critics like Leonard Maltin to provide disclaimers for Second World War propaganda cartoons. For a bigger movie like Song of the South, they’d need someone more charismatic than Leonard Maltin, and Hill says they’ve been casting a wide net: “They had talked to both Garrison Keillor and James Earl Jones. The idea was that they wanted a famous black actor or a famous storyteller to come forward and explain that Song of the South was an important film.” They may also have talked to poet Maya Angelou, who, according to Hill, “scared the hell out of them. She dug in her heels and said T want nothing to do with this.’ ”

Disney's afraid to release 'Song of the South' because of its racial stereotypes. Apparently 'red men’ are fair game, though. BY JAIME J. WEINMAN

This is all happening at a time when other companies are getting bolder about releasing cartoons with racial stereotypes. Warner Brothers’ most recent Looney Tunes Golden Collection includes Southern Fried Rabbit, where Bugs Bunny poses as a slave (crying “Don’t beat me, massa!”).

An upcoming collection of old Universal cartoons, Woody Woodpecker and Friends, will feature Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B, a cartoon that stereotypes African-Americans as thick-lipped, jazz-loving layabouts.

But Disney has a problem these companies don’t have. When Warner Brothers or Universal releases old cartoons, they know that they will be bought, and seen, mostly by adults. (Warner puts a disclaimer on cartoon collections warning that they aren’t suitable for children.) A film with the magic name “Disney” on it is automatically assumed to be child-friendly. Which means that if Song of the South hits DVD, millions of children will soon be quoting Bre’er Rabbit’s “Dat I is!” to their parents. The company usually deals with this problem by making cuts, as when it chopped a racially stereotypical character out of all commercial releases of

of Fantasia. racial stereotypes the South But without you out can’t of Song cutting cut the whole movie. So it remains unreleased for now.

The strange thing in all this is that Disney made no fuss about reissuing a film with more potential to offend: 1953 ’s Peter Pan. This animated production was released on DVD last March as part of Disney’s “Platinum Edition” series; the two-disc set carried no warnings or disclaimers.

Yet Peter Pan contains a tribe of Indians who embody every negative racial stereotype: they are bloodthirsty savages who threaten children with execution, they say “ugh” and “squaw” a lot, and most of them are drawn to look almost subhuman. They even have a song (What Makes the Red Man Red?) based on the premise that not having white skin is so weird it needs a production num her to explain it.

The Indians in Peter Pan are too cartoony and silly to be truly racist; as brilliantly animated by Ward Kimball, they

are exaggerated humans similar to comic white villains like Captain Hook. The fact remains, though, that anyone who is upset by Uncle Remus ought to be outraged by Kimball’s Indians. Yet Disney put this film on the market and sold a million copies of it, most of them to families with impressionable children. Disney even continues to put the Indians on merchandising. So why didn’t the board of directors worry about that?

The answer is that Disney evaluates a movie not by how offensive it is, but how many people complain. Song of the South has been a target of African-American rights groups literally from the moment it was released.

Peter Pan, for whatever reason, hasn’t inspired the same number of angry letters, so it stays in circulation. Disney doesn’t have a consistent overall policy against releasing movies with stereotypes; what it has is a consistent policy of avoiding

The ironic thing is that keeping Song of the South out of circulation may have caused Disney even more trouble. Because the company is so anxious to hide it, the legend has arisen that the film is some kind of white-supremacist movie, a suppressed example of Walt Disney’s racism. Many articles about the film claim that Uncle Remus is a slave; if the movie were available, people could see for themselves that he isn’t. Saturday Night Live’s Robert Smigel even did a parody of it where Uncle Remus sings, “Zip-a-dee doo-dah, Zipa-dee-ay / Negroes are inferior in every way.” If people could see the movie, they’d see its virtues as well as its flaws; because they can’t see it,

they’ve inflated it into a negative legend on a par with Disney’s support for fascism, or his frozen head.

What’s more, Disney executives have gotten worse publicity for not releasing Song of the South than they would probably get for releasing it. After Iger’s comments about the film at the 2006 meeting, there were stories in the newspapers and on the Internet that portrayed him as bowing to so-called political correctness. “I think Iger was genuinely being sincere,” Hill says. “He’d looked at the film, and was trying to give

a sense of ‘this is the kinder, gentler, notMichael Eisner version of the Walt Disney company. We’re not going to be nakedly about profit.’ ” But the story wasn’t that Iger was kind and gentle; the story was that he’d chickened out.

Iger has charged one of his executives, Dick Cook, with the task of finding a way for the company to flip-flop on Song of the South. Hill says Cook is considering putting the film into the Disney Treasures, a series of box sets where some controversial short subjects have been released. The problem with that plan, though, is that the Disney Treasures is a limited-edition series that prints only 100,000 copies of each title, and the demand for So?ig of the South is far bigger than that. “They need to make this as big a release as possible,” Hill explains, “but they also need to assure the Wal-Marts and the Targets that no one’s going to be protesting outside of their stores for selling Song of the South.”

Meanwhile, despite Song of the South’s reputation as a “lost” film, it’s really only “lost” in North America. Though Iger claimed that “ethics and integrity” demand that the film be suppressed, it’s on television in England every year, and several countries have been allowed to release it on home video. So how would Hill, for one, sum up the Disney company’s attitude to Song of the South? This way: “ ‘We’re keeping it on moratorium in the United States because this is where all the pains in the ass live.’ ” M