Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Song of the South Q&A

Q. Summarize the plot in as few words as possible.

A. A boy, Johnny, goes to live with his mother at his grandmother's estate. His father leaves; it is elliptically revealed that their marriage is suffering. This makes Johnny sad, but he meets Uncle Remus, who tells him edifying animated stories about Br'er Rabbit. He also meets a girl named Ginny, and they become friends. His mother thinks Remus is a bad influence on her son, so she forbids him to hang out with him. He leaves; Johnny chases after him and gets gored by a bull in notably bloodless fashion. Remus is reinstated and Johnny's father returns. These two things cause Johnny magically not to die. The kids and Remus skip around as cartoon animals appear in the real world via some kind of rip in the space-time continuum. The end.

Q. Okay, let's cut to the chase: how racist is it?

A. Pretty darned racist, actually. One's immediate inclination is to assume that Disney's concerns about the movie are overblown, but it really is pretty bad (obviously, this doesn't mean I approve of the ban). It's not maliciously racist, and there's nothing like the jaw-dropping "What Makes the Red Man Red?" bit in Peter Pan, but regressive racial presumptions predominate. The white people are clearly the ruling class; the movie takes place contemporaneously to its filming, but attitude-wise, you'd never know it wasn't a Confederate fantasia of some idealized version of slavery with the happy, simple slaves living in harmony with their wise and compassionate masters. When Johnny has a birthday party, Toby, the black boy he's become friends with, isn't even not invited; rather, it's that the very idea that an African American could be invited to socialize with the rich white kids never even crossed anyone's mind. So you can sort of see Disney's point.

Q. Crikey. Is there anything in the movie that might somehow attenuate this racism?

A. Well, Ginny does come from a kind of white-trash background (and her oafish brothers are the movie's antagonists)--we are given to know that even Toby is forbidden to associate with such people. So you know. But this barrier turns out to be permeable, as Ginny is permitted to go to the party. There are gulfs and then there are gulfs.

Q. Anything else?

A. Well, we get the impression that Johnny's uptight mother could stand to learn a thing or two from the more laid-back negroes. But I'm not sure that exactly helps the movie's case.

Q. Probably not. So, moving on: does anyone in the movie display any discernible acting talent?

A. Only James Baskett as Uncle Remus. Obviously he's playing a type, and not a particularly racially progressive type either, but he does it well enough that you appreciate his work in spite of that. Impressively, he also voices Br'er Fox in the animated bits, sounding absolutely nothing like Remus. He died only two years after the film was released, at the age of forty-four (you'd never guess from the movie that he was that young). Very sad.

Q. Jeez.

A. Sorry to suck the air out of the room like that.

Q. AHEM. So about those animated segments--how are they?

A. Mixed. Br'er Rabbit isn't actually a particularly distinctive or appealing character, and Br'er Bear is meh. But Br'er Fox is quite memorable, and whenever he's doing his thing they come to life. He's a fairly alarming character, lanky and full of sharp fangs and speaking--thanks to Baskett--in a hyperactive, nervy tone that sounds as though it's meant to be some sort of oblique commentary on our nation's crystal meth problem. We would absolutely obliterate Honest John from Pinnochio. Very well-done.

Q. What about the interactions between real-world and animated characters?

A. Pretty well-done--there's an especially neat bit where a live-action dog's head moves around following an animated frog.

Q. Cool.

A. Indeed.

Q. Can you make some sort of tedious connection to Disney comics?

A. It's not that hard--Rabbit starred for a long time in his own comic stories, and you also see the other characters around and about. I don't care for the stories much, but historically, it's interesting to see their origins.

Q. How's the music?

A. Again, mixed. I actually don't care so much for the song that everyone knows--the Academy Award-winning "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah"--and "Everybody's Got a Laughing Place" is just okay, but "How Do You Do?" is a lot of fun. There are also a handful of numbers that we only hear in part in the backgrounds of the live-action section, and some of those are worthwhile too, especially "Uncle Remus Said."

Q. You saw the movie in its last theatrical rerelease back in 1986. Do you remember anything of it from then?

A. I think I vaguely remember the bull-goring bit, but that's all. I only wanted to see it because of the animated bits, and I think the live-action parts (which are the great bulk of the movie) just kind of bored me. And yet, the animated parts don't seem to have stuck in my mind either. Go figure.

Q. How the hell did you get your hands on a copy in this day and age?

A. I can neither confirm nor deny that doing a google shopping search will reveal a number of very reasonably priced bootleg DVDs. It might or might not also be possible to view it online.

Q. Say no more.

A. I won't.

Q. Except this: did you like it overall? Does it have anything beyond historic interest?

A. You know, I did. Even disregarding troubling racial issues, It's not a brilliantly-executed production: the acting (apart from Baskett) is really quite bad and the script isn't up to much either, but I sort of got as caught up in it as it's probably possible for anyone to get in this day and age. I can't imagine how Disney could possibly rerelease it today--I frankly wouldn't want my children exposed to it, and I don't imagine that a DVD solely aimed at adult collectors would be easy to market or would sell well if the company did. And besides, after treating it like the madwoman in the attic for so long, how can you suddenly do an about-face? So it really is in kind of a tight spot. But if you have the means (and let's face it, if you have an internet-enabled computer, you do) I would recommend it to anyone interested in Disney history.

Q. Thank you for your time.

A. Always a pleasure.

Q. Any last words?

A. ALL of the child actors in this movie are now DEAD.

Q. ...

8 Comments:

Blogger Theodore pontificated to the effect that...

"the movie takes place contemporaneously to its filming"

FALSE, it takes place after the (un)Civil war between the States and was filmed after the Second World War in which the US took part as an active participant after both the Japs and Jerries had started to sink the US-Navy...

3:28 PM  
Blogger GeoX pontificated to the effect that...

Huh. You may be right about the time period, but...well, I don't know if your use of ludicrous, outdated ethnic slurs is meant to be somehow ironic, or if you're the real deal, but regardless, it makes me kind of not take you seriously.

4:30 PM  
Blogger GeoX pontificated to the effect that...

Turns out he's serious. I don't mind "jerries" so much; I find that anachronistic enough to be kind of funny, but "Japs?" Not really acceptable. I was wavering about whether I should publish Theodore's further comments--free speech and all--but goddamnit, it's my blog, and if I don't want people flinging around racial slurs, then I have no obligation to let them.

6:01 PM  
Blogger Kaitlyn pontificated to the effect that...

I've got a great link that sums up the answers to cries of (and worries about) "FREE SPEECH!!! 1ST AMENDEMENT!!!11"

http://disabledfeminists.com/2010/03/17/untitled-free-speech-post/

Okay, so you're not interested in creating a safe space like they are at the post, but the points still stand. We're not all American, this isn't a government site, it's your damn blog, delete what you want.

I will laugh if this isn't posted.

8:53 PM  
Blogger GeoX pontificated to the effect that...

Oh, I'm pretty familiar with the argument. And I wouldn't delete your posts unless you suddenly became a raving white supremacist or whatnot. I apologize for depriving you of a laugh, however. :(

8:56 PM  
Blogger Tavis pontificated to the effect that...

I have somehow managed to remain just as surprised today as I was when I learned Disney had refused to re-release Song of the South, while deciding to keep that song and dance you mentioned from Peter Pan. One seems at least a little more benign than the other.

As a kid (say, somewhere between eight and twelve years old), I used to read bits of the book the Remus and company first appeared in. I'm pretty sure I was warned off about the happy-slave bit, but knowing that was more than a bit off didn't stop me from enjoying the animal stories. Given proper context by an adult, I think it's possible for children to be exposed to this sort of thing without buying into its more troubling aspects. There's no reason for Disney (or anyone else) to assume this context will provided, but that just brings us back to 'What Makes the Red Man Red?'

...

I hate that song.

5:35 AM  
Blogger Achille Talon pontificated to the effect that...

Well, GeoX, I agree that this Theodore fellow did deserve to be effectively silenced, but I confirm that the movie is meant to take place a decade or so after the abolition of slavery (with an implication that Remus was formerly a slave). Disney (like, the man, not the company; Walter E. Disney.) even hired a historian to check on the accuracy, though he did not listen to his advice as much as he should have.

1:03 PM  
Blogger Theodore pontificated to the effect that...

What for? Because I was not politically correct towards the axis nations?

5:02 PM  

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