In a stew over Brer Rabbit
Disney's Song of the South is the latest casualty of political correctness.
By BRIAN PENDREIGH
It is not so much a case of who framed Roger Rabbit as who killed his cousin, Brer. Since the 1940s, the animated character has been a huge favourite among Disney's audience. He has been voted the studio's most popular animated character and was a favourite of Walt himself. The movie he appeared in, Song of the South, inspired the Splash Mountain theme-park ride, and the song Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah appears regularly on compilations.
But Brer Rabbit himself has disappeared, leading to suspicions of foul play. Brer Fox, his sworn enemy, might be considered the obvious suspect in this case. But the finger is being pointed firmly at the Disney corporation, which stands accused of killing its own creation. The motive? Political correctness.
Song of the South was the highest-grossing film of the 1940s; it won an Oscar for best song; and James Baskett was given a special Academy Award for his performance as Uncle Remus, the smiling, old black story-teller, who relates Brer Rabbit's adventures to Johnny, a young white boy, in an Old South reminiscent of Gone With The Wind.
But the film was controversial from the outset. Many saw Remus no less harmful a stereotype than the black looters and rapists in The Birth of a Nation 30 years earlier.
One critic called Remus "the sweetest and most wistful darky slave that ever stepped out of a sublimely unreconstructed fancy of the Old South", while protesters picketed cinemas with placards declaring: "We fought for Uncle Sam, not Uncle Tom." It also seems patronising to give Baskett a special Oscar rather than nominate him as best actor.
Now Disney itself seems to have become a little embarrassed by its creation. For years, it seemed happy to ignore detractors and cash in on Brer Rabbit and Uncle Remus's huge popularity, but society has become increasingly sensitive to racial stereotyping. Although video proved a goldmine for Disney, Song of the South is the one major title never released in the US.
It was available in the UK, but Disney took action to stop the resale of British videos in the US and ultimately withdrew the film here as well. A spokesman insisted the deletion was part of a natural cycle, while at the same time maintaining: "We are a global brand, so there has to be consistency across the brand." Copies of the British video now sell on the internet for around £50 a time.
But a backlash has begun. A petition demanding the film's release in the US has attracted more than 30,000 names. Supporters are organising through internet forums and websites, like SongoftheSouth.net and UncleRemusPages.com.
Both have direct links to disneyvideos.com, which may help explain why Brer Rabbit is more popular than Mickey Mouse, and Song of the South ranks above Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin.
"For me, it's pretty much about childhood memories," says Christian Willis, who runs the SongoftheSouth.net website. A 22-year-old computer maintenance engineer from California, he has almost 400 Song of the South memorabilia items.
He admits the film now has the added attraction for some of "forbidden fruit".
"A lot of people think the depiction of the African-Americans is racist . . . and they say that it's historically inaccurate, how they act and that sort of thing - they sing when they go to work and they seem happy." The same could be said, of course, about the dwarves in Snow White, though mining was a gruelling, dirty occupation with a high fatality rate, with no reason for songs and jest.
"It's not necessarily historically accurate," says Willis almost apologetically. "It's a story."
The campaign and continuing ban has stirred up controversy. Todd Boyd, a professor at the USC film school, and an African-American, recently branded the film "racist" in the LA Times, complaining Remus reaffirmed the stereotype of "happy-go-lucky, passive, carefree, and non-threatening" slaves.
The racial elements, however, are not that simple: Remus can be viewed as an African-American Aesop, imparting life-lessons to a young white audience in the form of animal stories, and a scene in which Remus and Johnny walk, hand in hand, as equals, might not have played too well in some parts of the New South.
The stories were collated after the Civil War by Joel Chandler Harris, a Georgian journalist, but they have their roots in African-American folklore. The characters represent the two races, with Brer Rabbit a symbol of black ingenuity in the face of white thuggery and aggression.
Harris heard the stories from slaves as a boy, though Remus was his own addition.
Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page, another African-American, says the film was a childhood favourite. "There is a diversity of images in the media now that reflect our diversity in real life. We can look at Song of the South with a new awareness and appreciation."
The debate over Song of the South has re-awakened controversy about other movies and books dealing with race, and in particular the film The Birth of a Nation, in which a white woman is attacked by a black soldier and a white family is rescued by the Ku Klux Klan. Director D W Griffith used blacked-up white actors, so white actresses would not be "contaminated" by contact with African-Americans. Like The Birth of a Nation, Willis believes Song of the South has an important place in American popular culture. "They should be seen as products of their time," he says.
These films are not alone. There is a 1946 Rupert Bear story called Rupert on Coon Island, the dog in The Dam Busters is called Nigger, and The Black and White Minstrel Show was built on the premise of white men blacking up and singing.
Then, of course, there is Enid Blyton, whose golliwogs were controversially replaced by goblins after her death, and who wrote a version of the Brer Rabbit stories, too. "Context is everything," says Philip Schlesinger, director of the Stirling Media Research Institute.
"The fact that racist mythology gets continually recycled doesn't suggest we can ever be complacent about what is in circulation, which is not to say there ought to be a principle of censorship, but simply we need to be aware of the context in which things are viewed."
Meanwhile, Disney has consistently refused to join the debate or discuss Brer Rabbit's disappearance. It is saying Zip, without even so much as a Doo-Dah.
Racist, Or Reflective Of Their Time?
Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852)
Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, and its portrait of a "good black", was intended as a contribution towards the abolitionist movement. But Tom's blind loyalty to his master became a symbol of racial subservience.
Till Death Us Do Part (1966-1975)
Alf Garnett, played by Warren Mitchell, right, became hated for his racist views. The sitcom, which ran from 1966 until 1975, was designed by writer Johnny Speight as a send-up of antediluvian views, but not everyone saw the joke and it was axed.
Ten Little Niggers (1939)
Agatha Christie's novel took its title from a nursery rhyme, but it was released in the US as And Then There Were None, and retitled in the UK as Ten Little Indians.
The Three Golliwogs (1944)
Usually confined to supporting roles in Noddy stories, the golliwogs were the principal characters in this Enid Blyton book. But the names Golly, Woggie, and Nigger have not worn well.
Love Thy Neighbour (1972-76)
The hilarious concept of this sitcom was a black man as bigoted as his neighbour. Name-calling as comedy, lamentable even when it was made, it may be of some sociological interest. Maybe.
The Black and White Minstrel Show (1958-78)
The singalong show specialised in rousing medleys, including some from the Deep South. For years it dominated the Saturday-night television schedules, but eventually those blacked-out faces were just too uncomfortable a sight and the show was dropped after 20 years.
- May 20th