Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Ghost in the Case: Song of the South

"It happened on one of those zip-a-dee-doo-dah days."

Ghost here!  Thanks for joining me today for yet another

Alright... let's do this.  It's been awhile since I've touched Disney.

If there's one thing that drives me absolutely bananas in life, it's finding something that interests me and learning that I can't see/obtain/witness it or at least not easily.  This is especially true when it comes to movies, television shows, and video games.  Fire Emblem the Binding Blade and Mother 3 are both Japanese only games that I would love to play.  It took me years to be able to find Extreme Ghostbusters and it drove me loopy.  When I found out the Star Wars Holiday Special was such a holy grail of terribleness I just had to try to find it.  The same is true with today's film, Song of the South.

Song of the South was a part live-action part animated film produced by Walt Disney and was originally released on November 12, 1946.  The film was based on the book Uncle Remus by Joel Harris about a black man's wild stories and boy did it cause a stir.  Disney himself was so upset by the reaction to this film that he appeared at the premier only to introduce the film then immediately left.  Several critics were in an uproar calling it blatantly racist, offensive, and was a proponent for white supremacy, a stigma that has stuck with the film to this day.  People picketed the movie theaters even.  Despite that, the film was re-released in theaters a number of times, the song Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah appears on many audio compilations to this day and Splash Mountain is one of the more popular attractions at the Disney Theme Parks.  That being said, this film has never received a home release in the US though it was released in the UK, Europe, China and Japan.  To this day the only way to view this is to find a copy that someone has converted from the other video types that were released in other countries or to find it uploaded on a streaming site somewhere.  Luckily I was able to find it and watch it.

So is this film the racial atomic bomb that so many people claimed it is? Is it even any good?  Let's take a look and find out.

The Plot

Johnny, a seven-year-old boy, and his family are heading to his grandmother's plantation in Georgia for a vacation.  However upon arrival Johnny learns that he is to live there with his mother and grandmother as his father is returning to Atlanta that same day.  Upset that his family has been torn apart, Johnny decides to leave the plantation alone and slips out that very night.  As he is leaving he hears Uncle Remus, an elderly black man, telling stories to the children of the black sharecroppers living on the plantation.  By now, Johnny's disappearance is known but Uncle Remus befriends the boy and offers him food for his journey to Atlanta.  While in Uncle Remus' cabin, Remus tells Johnny the story of Br'er Rabbit and the trouble he got into when he tried to leave home for good.  Johnny changes his mind and Remus returns him to the house.

Johnny becomes friends with Toby, one of the black boys on the plantation, and his neighbor Ginny during his time there.  Ginny has two older brothers, Joe and Jake, who are constantly bullying them.  When Ginny gives Johnny a puppy, Johnny's mother orders him to take the dog back where it came from.  As Johnny knows Ginny's brothers are intent on drowning the dog, he instead he heads to Uncle Remus' house and asks if he will care for the pup, not telling him of his mother's orders.  Remus takes in the dog and proceeds to tell the story of Br'er Rabbit and the Tar-Baby with the intent of teaching the children to not go messing with things in which they have no business messing.

Joe and Jake try to get the puppy back but Johnny uses the reverse psychology he learned in the Tar-Baby story to trick the boys into telling their own mother of the incident which results in a mighty spanking for the trouble makers.  Bent on revenge, they go and inform Johnny's mother of the incident.  Johnny's mother is angry with Remus for keeping the dog though he had no idea of her order.  She then orders Remus to return the dog and stop telling Johnny stories.  Johnny comes back to find the puppy but Uncle Remus sadly informs him that the dog is back at the neighbors and that he won't be telling stories anymore.  Johnny's birthday arrives and he goes to get Ginny.  However, Joe and Jake start their bullying again and get mud all over Ginny's dress causing Johnny to fight back.  Remus breaks up the fight and sees the upset children who no longer wish to go to the party.  He decides to cheer them up by telling them the story of Br'er Rabbit and his "Laughing Place."

Remus takes the children back to the plantation, but Johnny's mother intercepts them.  She is angry with Johnny for missing his own birthday party and is even more upset wheh Ginny mentions Remus had told them a story.  She orders Uncle Remus to never spend time with Johnny again.  Despondent, Uncle Remus packs his belongings and heads to Atlanta.  Johnny has decided that his own "laughing place" is Uncle Remus' cabin but he sees Remus leaving for good.  The boy tries to stop Remus but runs into the bull pasture and is attacked by the bull, seriously injuring him.  Johnny's father returns to find his boy out of his mind and calling for Uncle Remus.  Remus has returned to the plantation and Johnny's grandmother asks him up.  Remus tells a story (offscreen) about Br'er Rabbit and Johnny makes a full recovery.  The film ends with Johnny, Ginny, Toby, and Uncle Remus skipping down the road with all of the story characters surrounding them.

What's Good About It?

The animation sequences containing the stories of Br'er Rabbit are great.  These sequences are up to the Disney standard of animation at the time.  They were wonderful little fables to have and are done fantastically.  There's basically nothing negative I can say about the animation portions; Disney was on-point.  There's a good chance that you may have seen parts of the animated portions at some point during your life as I vaguely remember seeing the Tar Baby story when I was younger.  These segments certainly add that little bit of Disney flavor and character which is greatly appreciated.  There's more I can say about that, but that will be for the next section.

The single biggest stand-out part of this movie is James Baskett as Uncle Remus.  This man hits an absolute home run and steals every scene that he is in.  This character is so kind, so caring and so warm that you instantly fall in love with him.  He's the kind of character you want to meet and want to be around.  His joy is contagious and the few moments when he is truly sad are also very well played.  He is the starring gem of this film that makes the non-animated portions worth watching.  He even won an Honorary Academy Award for this performance making him the first black male performer to receive an Oscar.  Yes he's that good.  I cannot praise this man enough for this performance.  If there's one reason besides the animation to watch this film, it's Baskett!  It's a shame that due to his failing health this was not only his last performance on screen but he couldn't even attend the premier because Atlanta at the time was still segregated.

What's Bad About It?

I barely touched upon this in the Good section and this is more of an "unfortunate" than a real bad item.  The problem with this film comes in the fact that not only was it marketed in a particular direction but also the material that Disney has allowed to still be out for the US public paints a completely different picture of what this film actually is.  All this time I thought this was mostly a film about the animated adventures of Br'er Rabbit with Uncle Remus being a live-action narrator or sorts.  NOPE it's mostly about a young boy becoming friends with Uncle Remus and learning things from his stories.  This is not necessarily an awful thing but I truly wish I had known that going in.  The first time I watched this I was bored to tears because I didn't know what the plot actually was and I didn't really care about what was going on with this kid.  I just wanted my rabbit and Uncle Remus adventures in cartoon land.  A second watch made me enjoy the film more but if you're walking into this for the first time prepare for a shock/disappointment. 

The biggest problem with this story is the Mother.  It has nothing to do with the actress portraying her as she does an acceptable job... it's what the mother actually does.  It's practically impossible to sympathize with this horrible person because every decision she makes is bad and causes a fair majority of the bad in the film.  Why is she getting mad at Remus for keeping the dog when he didn't know?  There's no reason for her to order him not to tell stories when his stories were entertaining and helped inadvertently teach the kid how to non-violently take care of bullies.  Would she rather Johnny slug the kid in the face instead of using his brain to find a solution he heard from a story?  Her telling Remus to avoid her son is the whole reason for his heartache and the reason that Johnny gets attacked by the bull.  She's a major problem and the only redeemable quality she even has is that she does seem to care for her son despite screwing up left and right.  Even the grandmother can see that she's being an idiot.  I know there has to be some form of dramatic tension but I always hate when the dramatic tension is stupid. 

This one is a bit of a nitpick but I would have liked for there to be a simple title card showing the date at the beginning of the film.  Why is this important?  Well I, as well as many others throughout the years, was under the impression that this happened during the time of slavery.  In fact, this takes place after the Civil War when slavery was abolished and it was during the time of sharecroppers.  None of this is explicitly explained and just a simple date card or sentence would have caused a fair amount of controversy to go away.

Is It Really Racist?

Before I dig myself into a hole that cannot be gotten out of, let's get a few things straight.  For those of you who do not know me, I am a white male.  When it comes to race and whether or not something is racist, a white male's opinion will never be just an opinion to many people.  It will always be considered a "white opinion."  I personally agree with the notion that a person's opinion is constricted by their race but that's the way life is sometimes and to some people.  I would not have the same viewpoint as a person of another race or color because of the intricacies of life and the struggles/privileges that too often get associated with that.  However, being of a certain race shouldn't make you explicitly blind to an opinion on whether something is racist or not.  When it comes to Song of the South, I personally do not believe that it is racist and I shall explain to you why.

The film was criticized as showing an "idyllic master-slave relationship" and overlooking the hardships of the slaves.  Well first off this is Disney we are talking about here, would you honestly be surprised that they would paint a happier picture than what might be reality?  Disney, the company which wants to put a smile on everyone's face and will actively change the endings to stories and fairy tales so that everyone gets a happy ending such as The Little Mermaid, The Hunchback of Notre Dame or Frozen.  You honestly thing that early Disney was going to show the harshness of life associated with slavery, the terrible work or the monstrous whippings in a story about a 7 year old learning wisdom from an old man?  Get out of here.  I can excuse the critics at the time because this was very early in their movie career but still... it IS Disney.  .  Second of all, though it wasn't explicitly stated during the film, this wasn't during the slave period.  All these men and women were free to come and go as they pleased.  There was no master-slave relationship to speak of making this point completely invalid though people still have that erroneous thought.

It was also criticized for having "every single black stereotype in the book" from having the sharecroppers singing songs together to the "negro dialect" used by Uncle Remus and throughout the story.  People found that very offensive.   I'm honestly at a loss here folks and may bother someone with my next statement.  The thing about stereotypes is that they often times exist for a reason.  While some exist simply because people are being jerks towards other people groups (the kinds of stereotypes we should avoid), many exist because something like that ACTUALLY HAPPENED more than once.  I guarantee that sharecroppers at the time this film was set probably did sing songs together just like any other person might have done while doing manual labor to pass the time and keep their spirits up... singing is not exclusive to a race.  Many of these people would not be that educated and would talk with that particular dialect.  There's nothing wrong or offensive about people speaking the best they could, especially when nobody is making fun of them for that fact.  It's just being a possible representation of that time period.  There's nothing wrong with portraying things that might have actually happened as long as they aren't done in a hateful manner.  Nothing here is done hatefully to demean any black person in this film.  It's not like we have a white actor in blackface speaking with that dialect to demean or belittle anyone.  It's not like at any point a person of color is put down or made to feel of less worth because of their color.  The closest thing we have to that is the mother just being unnecessarily hateful to Uncle Remus but that had more to do with her being a moron than him being black.

One critic at the time went so far as to say he was "thoroughly disgusted" by the film for being "as vicious apiece of propaganda for white supremacy as Hollywood ever produced."  REALLY??  This is just getting moronic.  Point to me exactly where any white person was seen as being superior to any black person in this film.  That critic (though probably deceased by now) wouldn't be able to do that because it simply does not exist.  In fact, the only people seen with a negative spin were ALL white.  It's a shame that so many people reacted so poorly to a film that didn't deserve it.  It is because of these idiots that we still don't have a US release.  You would think after almost sixty years something would have been done or some ideology about the film would have changed, but in 2010 the Disney CEO Robert Iger stated there were no plans to release the film  and called it "antiquated" and "fairly offensive."  OFFENSIVE HOW???  I just.. I don't get it.  Maybe, again, I don't get it because my opinion will always be a "white" opinion.  To me, in order for something to be racist though, it has to do something in particular.

To me there is a difference in something being an unfortunate truth about a bad time in our history and something being racist.  People like to toss around the word racist without a good context honestly; the world is filled with people crying racism when there really shouldn't be.  Anytime something slightly negative happens between two people of different race, it's considered "racist."  For those of you who may have forgotten, racism is the believe that one race is better than another one.  In order for something to be racist is has to portray/imply/believe a certain race is inherently inferior.  If this film had come out and stated or even implied that Uncle Remus was less of a person than Johnny then this would definitely be offensive.  It doesn't do that.  While it does portray the black people working for the white people they were never portrayed as inferior or less of a person because of this.  That was just what they were doing to live their lives and provide for their family.  Remus and the Grandmother certainly have a level of respect for each other, though it's only really seen once.  Johnny doesn't give a rip what color everyone else is.  He'll befriend anyone.  This film never shows anyone as inferior to anyone else.  It's harmless and people should get over this stigma of it being racist when it honestly isn't.


Should you give this film a watch if you can find it?  Sure.  As long as you are prepared for what this movie is actually about you'll find some great things inside, namely the animation segments and James Baskett.  As previously stated, the first time I watched this, I found it fairly dull because it was not what I was expecting, however a second viewing (for the purposes of this review) made me enjoy it far more because I knew what I was getting into and could more easily find the good than wait for more animation.  It's not a breathtaking film and in many ways is antiquated like the CEO of Disney stated but it's in interesting part of Disney and film history.  I really wish that Disney would release this out to the United States.  Perhaps they could start it off with a little piece by someone such as Morgan Freeman or another actor of color to have a sort of tiny talk about the effects of slavery, when this film was actually set during, and being thankful that we as a society have moved on.

I will leave you with the words of film critic Herman Hill about the film.  He felt that Song of the South would "prove of inestimable goodwill in the further of interracial relations", and considered most criticisms of the film to be "unadulterated hogwash symptomatic of the unfortunate racial neurosis that seems to be gripping so many of our humorless brethren these days."

This is Ghost, fading into the darkness.
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