- Disney’s Most Notorious Film: Race, Convergence, and the Hidden Histories of Song of the South by Jason Sperb
When Walt Disney acquired the rights to Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus books in 1939, David O. Selznick’s adaptation of Gone with the Wind was a smash hit and plantation themes seemed likely to sell movie tickets for years to come. When the Disney Company released Song of the South seven years later, however, the film was not only a critical and box-office disappointment but also an embarrassing step backwards in many viewers’ eyes. During World War II, the U.S. Office of War Information (OWI) had collaborated with Hollywood [End Page 630] and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) “to create more positive, less stereotypical images of African Americans,” writes Jason Sperb, who teaches film and media studies at Indiana University. Contemporary audiences were “thus deeply critical of the racist assumptions in Song of the South.… This was not a response limited just to African American activists and white liberals” (pp. 14-15).
Detailing the lackluster performance in 1946 of the Song of the South is one of many ways that Sperb refutes common assumptions about what he calls “Disney’s most notorious film.” Those who would explain away the racism of the film as “a product of its time” are compelled to grapple with the fact that the film became more popular, not less so, as the years passed. “Its first big financial splash was during its third release, in the early 1970s,” Sperb explains, noting that this was “only a couple of years, ironically, after it was rumored that the film would be shelved permanently because of its controversial status” (p. 7).
Sperb attributes the changing reception of the film to multiple factors, including nostalgia and the impact of media “convergence,” as well as white backlash against the civil rights movement. He argues that “Disney’s own rise institutionally was just as significant” as the rise of color-blind conservatism in Ronald Reagan’s America (p. 33). While Sperb does not shy away from discussing “‘post-racial whiteness’—an ‘evasive whiteness’ that reinforces racial privilege by denying the existence of any racial categories”—his most interesting contribution is to examine how the creation of the Disney brand and the repackaging of parts of Song of the South shaped audiences’ attitudes over time (p. 34). His third chapter explores “how Disney’s long history of media convergence—television shows, children’s books, musical records, and so forth—worked over subsequent decades to resuscitate Song of the South’s critical and cultural reputation” (p. 33). A later chapter offers a fascinating reading of the Splash Mountain attraction that opened at Disneyland in 1989. By this time, Disney “Imagineers” had developed a strategy to “remediate” [End Page 631] the company’s “problematic intellectual property into other profitable media platforms—versions of Song of the South that played up the affective and animated portions of the film while downplaying its most overtly racist live action content” (p. 34). Prominent within Disney’s repackaging has been the award-winning music; Miley Cyrus (a.k.a. Hannah Montana) recorded “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” for a new generation in 2006.
Sperb’s analysis of the Song of the South after 1946 is excellent and well researched; however, he does err in his treatment of the history of the film. His claim that “Harris himself really learned the Brer Rabbit stories as a journalist later in life” is simply wrong (p. 111). Harris learned the stories as a teenager while working as a printer’s apprentice on a Georgia plantation, and he modeled the Uncle Remus character on men he actually knew. The complexity and contradictions within Harris’s work are important background for Walt Disney’s own nostalgia, which was a factor in the origins of the film. A fuller discussion of the folklore that Harris preserved might also...