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filmfann's avatar

Why is Disney's "Song Of The South" considered racist?

Asked by filmfann (47612points) June 12th, 2020

Please note if you have actually seen the movie.

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33 Answers

elbanditoroso's avatar

I haven’t seen that one, but I would also bring up “South Pacific” is a racist movie in some respects – the Frenchman’s kids are described has “halfbreeds” and the tenor of the movie is the “whiteness” of the main characters.

Another one worth mentioning is Donovan’s Reef – tension between the whites and the native Polynesians, and then misogynistic in terms of John Wayne’s treatment of Elizabeth Allen.

Older movies were not made with 2020 sensibilities.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Well because it stereotypes the black characters I guess. Things and tastes change. I kind of freak out when I see a movie from the 70’s and one of the characters starts raping a woman and she ends up liking it…...

janbb's avatar

Haven’t seen the whole movie but this video gives you a pretty idea of the film and why it is banned:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vzf277YVMyg

filmfann's avatar

@janbb Thanks for the link, but I still don’t see the problem.
They say the film doesn’t accurately represent the problems and attitudes of its timeframe. Does the film need to show slave abuse to be acceptable?

Dutchess_III's avatar

GQ @filmfann. It’s a KID’S movie.

Dutchess_III's avatar

@janbb It is not banned. I bought it less than 2 years ago to prove that it isn’t banned.

JLeslie's avatar

As a child I didn’t catch any racist undertones, or even blatant, I just liked the songs and especially liked when there were cartoons in the scenes. I didn’t really see myself as white and other people as black, as a kid I just saw people.

For a black child they may be much more aware of their people being in the lower position, and hurt by it or angry about the portrayal, perfectly understandable. That’s the thing, when you are the person or group being depicted in a subservient way, or the one being abused, then it hits you differently. Like @Dutchess_III example, I can barely watch a rape scene, even worse if they turn it into the girl liking it. My husband is unaffected, he just sees it as a movie.

As an adult, the racism is more obvious to me of course, and depending on how it is portrayed makes it palatable to me or not. Mostly, I have a very hard time watching anyone be abused or portrayed as stupid just because of their position in society. It’s upsetting.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@filmfann The main issue isn’t that the film doesn’t show slave abuse (or that it invokes stereotypes, or that it uses vernacular—though these can be problematic in their own right). It’s that it treats slavery like a pleasant experience. The slaves are happy to be slaves. The masters are depicted as benevolent despite being perfectly comfortable with slavery. But you can’t be benevolent and perfectly comfortable owning people. And depicting slaves as happy plays into old racist stereotypes that were used to defend and prolong slavery.

@Dutchess_III You bought a bootleg copy of the film, as we have discussed at length. But no, the film is not banned. Disney has simply chosen not to make it available in any legal format (which is different).

The funny thing is that you bought that copy to prove something that no one was arguing, which isn’t a great reason to buy something. It’s one thing to just want it. It’s another to buy it in a vain effort to win an argument only you are having.

Dutchess_III's avatar

From the clip it would appear the it’s considered racist because everyone gets along. Everyone lives in harmony.

SavoirFaire's avatar

Judging something on a single clip is foolish. Context matters.

But maybe by “clip” you meant the video @janbb linked (which isn’t a clip)? If so, then you should pay better attention. The issue is not that everyone gets along. It’s that it portrays slavery as an okay thing that can exist in an idyllic and harmonious world.

JLeslie's avatar

@SavoirFaire As a child I don’t think I understood they were slaves. Slavery was so foreign to my mind I just saw it as people who work on the plantation. Nice that they are happy. Nice that they got along with the owners. As a kid I was totally clueless. I don’t think it influenced me much, simply because in my real life my friends were so diverse. It wouldn’t occur to me that one group would be slaves to another group, we were all in kindergarten together.

When I saw Gone With The Wind I was an adult and it bored me to death, and the whole idea of black people not being treated as equals was annoying and I don’t relate to it.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@JLeslie Whether or not something is acceptable isn’t based on a child’s understanding of it.

janbb's avatar

@Dutchess_III The youtube called it banned and Disney + has not included it in its archive so I called it banned. That may not be the best term, maybe stricken from the cannon of Disney classics is a better term.

I believe we’re trying to get away from depictions of enslaved people as the “happy darkies” so pleased to do the Massa’s bidding and to a more realistic viewpoint of the history of racism in our country.

One can make a case for expunging all racist art or putting it in context by discussion and teaching. Something like Huckleberry Finn should not be bowdlerized in my viewpoint but discussed in terms of some of its racism. However, the world can probably live without Song of the South. At least, Disney, which owns it, seems to think so.

SavoirFaire's avatar

One thing that I think is important to remember is that racism isn’t just burning crosses or screaming racial slurs. It doesn’t require conscious feelings of hatred or hostility. People can be racist without knowing or believing that they are racist. Actions can contribute to racism and racial oppression in ways that are not overt. And systems or institutions can be racist even if none of the people who build or maintain them intended for them to be.

Another issue is that our understanding of race and racism evolves and grows. Obvious racism is easy to identify. Subtler racism is harder to spot. And strategies for dealing with racism that were once popular might turn out to be less than ideal. They may even contain (smaller) elements of racism themselves. Eliminating racism is a project, not a switch that can be flipped. It takes time, effort, and introspection. It’s uncomfortable, and it’s awkward. It’s also worth it.

hmmmmmm's avatar

@Dutchess_III – Do you realize that the movie was controversial when it was released? The NAACP issued a statement at the time against the movie. This isn’t only a case of changing values.

Dutchess_III's avatar

@JLeslie as a kid a lot of things that were racist went right over my head. I didn’t question the fact that at one time there was only 1 crayon for “skin color” and it was peach.

JLeslie's avatar

@SavoirFaire Well, Disney generally is marketing towards families, especially when that movie was made. I can’t imagine a movie like that being made today, and I’m certainly ok with Disney locking it up in the dungeon if they want to.

@Dutchess_III I remember not understanding the terms white and black as a kid when my skin isn’t white and black people aren’t black. I also remember as a child learning the dad on Sanford and Son was black. I had always thought he was white (must have been years) until that point. His skin was light to me, I just had no clue.

One of my friends where I live mentioned being in the African American club and I said, “I didn’t know you were in that club, I always think of you as Puerto Rican.” I honestly never really thought of her as black, but she certainly identifies that way. I’m just clueless I guess, even now.

Not that I don’t notice race at all, of course I do, I just mean it isn’t front in my mind I guess. It’s secondary to knowing the person or the character.

Dutchess_lll's avatar

BTW it’s set during the reconstruction so we can assume that the former slaves chose to stay.

seawulf575's avatar

I’ve seen Song of the South and there are a couple things about the racism of it. The first is that it wasn’t really considered racist at the time in society. Just as Mammy Two Shoes in the Tom and Jerry cartoons was not considered racist. But as time has gone by and there have been many changes in how we look at stereotypes, we can see where these things could be considered very racist.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@Dutchess_lll The film never says when it is set. Disney insists that it is set during Reconstruction, and there are some elements that suggest that (and some that suggest otherwise), but it’s not actually clear in the film. Regardless, it doesn’t matter.

The whole Reconstruction project was a failure. Lincoln was assassinated, Johnson gutted the plans to integrate freed slaves into society, and sharecroppers were essentially forced to stay in circumstances that were just slavery by another name.

The myth of the willing slave became the myth of the willing sharecropper, and the fact that you believe it (despite having no interest in supporting racism) is itself evidence of how racist tropes and assumptions have burrowed their way into the public consciousness.

@seawulf575 It was considered racist by plenty of people at the time. Like @hmmmmmm mentioned, the NAACP released a statement against it. And he wasn’t alone. Others criticized the film as well, including US House Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. There were also protests outside some screenings of the film.

hmmmmmm's avatar

@seawulf575: “The first is that it wasn’t really considered racist at the time in society.”

Relevant link. This was protested against in 1946 during its release.

Also, here is NAACP statement at the time of its release:

“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.”

Yellowdog's avatar

The film depicts the reconstruction period, not the days of slavery.

Racial stereotypes, however, are obvious.

Dutchess_lll's avatar

I need to watch it again and report back here.

Yellowdog's avatar

I don’t think the film is racist in any way, but I can see why African Americans would want to be portrayed this way, typical of the way movies depicted blacks in movies like Gone with the Wind and Holiday Inn, and dozens of cartoons that some would find offensive.

Compare with depictions as in The Princess and The Frog, which, even though set in 1912, shows entrepreneurship, independence,, a daring spirit, discovering new ways of combining resources. African Americans are mainstream millennial culture now—whereas the blacks depicted in Songs of the South, although friendly and decent folk, are depicted as uneducated, backwoods, sharecropper types.

seawulf575's avatar

@hmmmmmm and @SavoirFaire Let’s be honest here. It was 1946. Racism was far more acceptable back then. Yes, there were some trying to change that and God bless them. But overall, people were of a frame of mind that blacks were not entirely equal. It wasn’t until 1955 that Rosa Parks had her bus ride of fame. Now let’s fast forward to the year 2000 when Disney last released it on VHS in the UK. It has never been put into a DVD format unlike most Disney animated (or mostly animated) movies. The awareness changed in the 50-some-odd years in between. People started looking at the movie from a different view point and seeing some of the problems with it.

JLeslie's avatar

@seawulf575 My parents who were born in 1943 have never seen a “colored only” sign for restaurants and water fountains nor bus seats except in pictures and movies just like me and they grew up using public transportation and going to public schools. Same for my grandparents for that matter. Only a part of the country thought it was normal to be racist. I’m not saying there aren’t racist people in the north, I’m just saying perspectives and experiences in general were extremely different in the South than other parts of the country. My parents and grandparents were not racist and growing up I never heard them say anything racist. Unless you count my grandmother pointing out Puerto Rican’s like bright colors in their houses (she did interior decorating for a short time). It was not “normal” everywhere to be racist. The South still pays today for their prolonged racism, I’m specifically referring to segregation.

There is an autobiography written by a fairly well known basketball coach in California, and he describes as a boy moving with his family from the Deep South to California. He talks about changing trains in St. Louis and that the new set of trains did not have separate cars for whites and blacks. It was like a whole new world moving from the South to the west coast.

I think @Yellowdog has a point that most people just don’t want to see black people depicted that way anymore even if it’s true that black people in the South commonly did the physical labor on the plantations. It’s a partial truth and doesn’t show the full reality of what was happening during that time.

I think it’s just mostly being sensitive to the times. I always try to think of myself in the minority position. Would I want a full length movie showing my people happy in a slave position? It’s like Hogan’s Heros, it’s in bad taste to me, but yet I still see it on TV in rerun.

seawulf575's avatar

@JLeslie I’ve seen colored only signs…when I was a kid. But they were only in the south and I think I only saw one. But racism was not only restricted to the south. NYC was one of the most important cities in the nation at developing rights for blacks and making them equal. But even as late as the 1950’s there was a dislike among many city citizens of true integration. Disreputable land developers would do what was called Blockbusting. They would go into a predominantly white neighborhood and spread the rumor that blacks were soon moving in. As a result they got people to sell their homes at a price much lower than market. Those people didn’t sell their homes because they wanted to lose money, they did it because they didn’t want to live in a neighborhood with blacks. Overall in this nation whites had a negative view of blacks, even when they were “integrating”. In fact, I bet if you asked those people selling their homes at rock bottom prices what their views on racism were, they would tell you it was wrong and that they weren’t racist. They would tell you something like they felt the blacks were given plenty of equality. And that is what I am saying about our overall view of racism at the time. Today things are MUCH different. Even in the 60’s and 70’s things were changing significantly.

JLeslie's avatar

I know about blockbusting and redlining and all sorts of maneuvers that were done in the real estate world.

Real estate sharks spread rumors (sound familiar) to prey on “their own” white people. Who should the people hate the black people or the real estate sharks doing the lying? Think about that for a minute.

I’m not sure if I can consider a concern for real estate value to be racist, or just an unfortunate reality that is born from racism. I have black friends who would worry about their real estate value if a lot of black people moved into their neighborhoods, although I think that’s less and less the case. Even when a minority group doesn’t have a reputation of hurting property value, but are coming in in large numbers, it’s not unusual for at least some of the existing residents to not like it. People don’t like change and they don’t like being the minority themselves, especially if they are accustomed to being the majority.

seawulf575's avatar

@JLeslie I don’t have to think about whether or not the people should dislike the scammers or the blacks. For me it’s disliking the scammers. I might dislike the blacks, but it would be on a case by case basis and wouldn’t flee just because some moved into my neighborhood. I live in a pretty diverse neighborhood right now and get along with most folks. The point is that the scammers were playing on a known bias. They knew spreading those rumors would cause white folks to flee. That speaks of an ingrained bias to me. These days there are more neighborhoods that are well mixed and less ingrained racial bias going on.

JLeslie's avatar

@seawulf575 You might dislike the blacks?

seawulf575's avatar

@JLeslie I dislike people from time to time. Blacks are no exception. Every group has an asshole from time to time. That’s why it would be a case by case basis. The color of a persons skin doesn’t make them or exempt them from being an asshole.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Tell you what I dislike….they had peaceful protests on the sidewalk down town. Some asshole in a really loud truck, and flying the confederate flag, kept aggressively driving back and forth in front of the protestors, gunning his engine. Talk about an asshole.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@seawulf575 “It was 1946. Racism was far more acceptable back then.”

For sure, and I’m sorry if it seemed like I was implying otherwise. I guess what @hmmmmmm and I were reacting to is that “it wasn’t really considered racist at the time in society” is sometimes used to defend things (on the grounds that they were “fair for their time” or that the creators “couldn’t have known better”), so we wanted to point out that it wasn’t some unthinkably fringe idea at the time that the film was racist.

But if I understand you correctly now (and maybe I don’t), what you were actually saying was that we shouldn’t be surprised that a film like Song of the South was released in 1946 since it didn’t go against the sensibilities of the majority (even if it they should have known better). That’s certainly true, and plenty of people at the time would have been blind, indifferent, or even receptive to the film’s racist elements. So you’re definitely right that people like that wouldn’t have considered the film racist.

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