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Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Disney's Song of the South and its Sources

It would be an understatement to say that Disney's Song of the South is a controversial film. How controversial is, however, largely proportional to the number of people who have not actually seen it. Upon its release in 1946, the film became a Disney staple and its animated cast - Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Brer Bear - became company icons. That lasted until 1986, when Song of the South had its last theatrical re-release. It became a touchstone for protest over the conditions and representation of African-Americans, and despite one of Disney's best loved theme park attractions being based on it, Song of the South was pulled from distribution in the United States. For 20 years interested parties have had to be motivated to seek out bootlegged European releases, but its wide availability in the age of the Internet has done nothing to diminish its reputation as either one of the best or one of the worst Disney films, depending on who you talk to.

Song of the South was based was based, in spots, on the "Uncle Remus" stories transcribed by Joel Chandler Harris through the 1880's and 90's. Three animated segments in the film adapt stories pulled from Harris' anthology of African-American folk tales, linked by a live-action narrative penned by Dalton S. Raymond, Morton Grant, and Maurice Rapf. Some unspecified problem has beset the family of little Johnny (played by Bobby Driscoll, Disney's first contract child actor and voice of Peter Pan), causing a rift between his mother and father. The implication is that the problems stem from anti-segregationist editorials penned by Johnny's father for the family newspaper. He and mother (Ruth Warrick) are left in the care of grandmother (Lucile Watson) on the old plantation. Problems with his family and with local bullies leads Johnny to Uncle Remus (James Baskett), the elder storyteller and kindly father figure of the plantation's African-American ex-slave community. Remus guides Johnny through his troubles by way of stories about wily Brer Rabbit. It is these live-action segments that fuel most of the controversy, for portraying the complicated era of the Reconstruction with all the pleasantry and frivolity of a Disney movie.

The biggest fault of Song of the South is being a consummate Disney movie. It has real heart, and compelling characters, and good music, and fun animated sequences. Even in a culture that has not legally been able to watch it for 30 years, its essence still endures in Splash Mountain, one of the most popular Disney theme park attractions of all time. The animated sequences are as good as the best cartoons from Disney's wartime era. The controversial live-action sequences don't quite have the same scope as a comparable classic like Gone With the Wind (1939) but it still carries that same sense of Southern charm, quaintness, and moments of grandeur. Ruth Warrick is resplendent in her gorgeous period dress, doing a slightly softer Vivien Leigh. Hattie McDaniel reprises basically the same character from Gone With the Wind, and like always it is fun to watch. It is a pity that James Baskett's wonderful performance as Uncle Remus is locked away in the Disney vault though. In 1948, Baskett received an Honorary Academy Award for his kindly, paternal, sympathetic portrayal of Uncle Remus defined by his own quiet strength of character, becoming the first African-American male to receive an Oscar (the first African-American was Hattie McDaniel, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1939 for Gone With the Wind). It was especially ironic given that Baskett could not even attend Song of the South's premiere in racially segregated Georgia.


Though the African-American characters portrayed by Baskett, McDaniel, and Glenn Leedy are friendly, positive, and full of song - acting as the well-adjusted foils to the broken family of the white plantation owners - Disney nevertheless “Disneyfies” a difficult time in American history, in the immediate wake of the American Civil War, when African-Americans were technically free but had nowhere to go, dealing with the intergenerational trauma of slavery while racism was still rampant. It is offensive exactly because it is so inoffensive. The NAACP even said as much... In a press release following the film's debut, NAACP executive secretary Walter Francis White admitted (emphasis mine):
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People recognizes in 'Song of the South' remarkable artistic merit in the music and in the combination of living actors and the cartoon technique. It regrets, however, that in an effort neither to offend audiences in the north or south, the production helps to perpetuate a dangerously glorified picture of slavery. Making use of the beautiful Uncle Remus folklore, 'Song of the South' unfortunately gives the impression of an idyllic master-slave relationship which is a distortion of the facts. 
It was this same time period that Joel Chandler Harris came into when he set about to transcribe and preserve the folk tales of African-American former slaves. Born in 1845 in Georgia to an unwed Irish immigrant mother and a father who fled immediately after his birth, 16-year old Harris took up work in a print shop on the Turnwold Plantation. During his time on the plantation, he became immersed in the lives of African-American slaves, feeling less self-conscious around them on account of his Irish heritage (including a shock of red hair) and illegitimate birth. The Uncle Remus character he later invented was a composite of several storytellers he knew, and Uncle Remus’ stories were those he heard around the evening fire. After the American Civil War, Harris moved from newspaper to newspaper, becoming a valued humourist and political commentator while promoting the vision of racial reconciliation in the “New South.” Eventually he set upon the task of transcribing the folktales he heard at Turnwold as a document of past times.


Like the movie based on them, Harris' writings are controversial. Some see his transcriptions as preserving an important part of America's cultural history, while others see him as having appropriated African-American culture. Some see his simulated slave dialect as a significant linguistic artifact, while others see it as demeaning. Some see the Uncle Remus character as a crude stereotype, others point out that according to slave narratives such personalities did exist. Harris was, on the one hand, a progressive advocate of racial reconciliation and African-American rights, and on the other he was paternalistic with a ingrained sense of nostalgia about the Antebellum South. He had even interpreted Uncle Tom's Cabin, an avowed abolitionist novel, as "a wonderful defense of slavery." In short, it may just be that in a country still dealing with the intergenerational trauma of slavery 150 years later, it is simply impossible to write about it without courting controversy.

So, let's write about it...




Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Uncle Tom's Cabin and it's Cultural History

It is a comfort to hope, as so many of the world's sorrows and wrongs have, from age to age, been lived down, so a time shall come when sketches similar to these shall be valuable only as memorials of what has long ceased to be.
These words, penned by Harriet Beecher Stowe in the preface to the first edition of her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, expressed a hope that became a prophecy. The best-selling novel of the 19th century and second best-selling book of the century after the Bible itself, Stowe's fictionalized exposé of slavery in the United States was an epoch-making tome that accomplished its lofty ambition. Apocryphal accounts have Abraham Lincoln crediting Uncle Tom's Cabin with sparking the American Civil War. Whether or not that was true, it has taken a strange cultural arc: a radically progressive anti-slavery tract in the 19th century, Uncle Tom's Cabin eventually came to be seen itself as an outdated reinforcement of racist caricatures in the 20th. In the 21st century, it has furnished one of the only remaining acceptable forms of racism, which is for white progressives (in Chinese: 白左 or báizuǒ) to label any person of colour who disagrees with them an "Uncle Tom"... An acceptable form of racism because it is perpetrated by conspicuously self-described "anti-racists." 

What could account for such a major shift in its reputation? Undoubtedly, one reason is that, like Disney's Song of the South after it, Uncle Tom's Cabin is one of those things that are controversial in direct proportion to how many people have not seen it. James Baskett received an Honorary Academy Award for his positive, sympathetic, paternal portrayal of Uncle Remus in the 1946 film, becoming the first African-American man to receive an Oscar... And today, that award-winning performance is locked away in the "Disney vault", because of its reputation as a racist film among people who have never had the chance or taken the initiative to watch it. While the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin is widely available, it is less frequently on any primary or secondary academic curricula and has not had a Hollywood adaptation since the end of the silent era.

That may itself be symptomatic of the truism that the progressives of one era become the conservatives of the next. Uncle Tom's Cabin is a Victorian novel, published in 1852, and employs a vocabulary of imagery and archetypes that today seem like crude caricatures. The sort of "mammy" character made famous by Aunt Jemima and Hattie McDaniel (who was the first African-American to win an Academy Award, for best supporting actress, for her role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind) was popularized in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Likewise, the character Topsy is a "pickaninny" stereotype. Yet while seeming racist today, they were representatives of real sorts of people during the time period and would have been readily identifiable from actual experience. There were African-American maids like Mammy and storytellers like Uncle Remus. Furthermore, the same fictionalized shorthands were employed for the white American cast. It is the monstrous Simon Legree who bequeathed the image of the moustache-twirling villain satirized by The Great Race's Dr. Fate, Dudley Do-Right's Snidely Whiplash, and professional wrestler "The Villain" Marty Scurll. 

Film and Vaudeville did few favours for Uncle Tom's Cabin here either. Copyright law was virtually nonexistent when the novel was first published, allowing drama troupes free reign to interpret and reinterpret the text as they saw fit. Because the novel was controversial among those who supported the institution of slavery, pro-slavery "Tom Shows" were performed throughout the South, which valourized the white slavers and demeaned the African-American cast. These pro-slavery Tom Shows and even straightforward anti-slavery ones alike utilized actors in blackface, quickly merging with minstrel shows. Early film followed these traditions. Edwin S. Porter's 1903 adaptation for Thomas Edison is essentially a cinematic transcription of the Vaudeville shows, blackface and all. Disney also preserved this in the 1933 short Mickey's Mellerdrammer, in which Mickey and Minnie (in blackface) put on a Tom Show. It is a "vaulted" cartoon rarely released by Disney, but valuable in capturing an impression - amidst the cavorting characters for whom everything is going comically wrong - of how Tom Shows were produced, performed, and received by their audiences.

Edwin S. Porter's 1903 version of Uncle Tom's Cabin.


Digging beneath its popular reputation, what do we find when actually reading Uncle Tom's Cabin? We find a poignant, surprisingly nuanced, and powerful book affirming the dignity of the human person that is still relevant wherever and however that dignity is erased by those who would exploit others as mere instruments of gain.