Disney Disclaimers
November 23, 2019 8:28 AM   Subscribe

Disney’s new streaming service has added a disclaimer to "Dumbo," “Peter Pan” and other classics because they depict racist stereotypes, underscoring a challenge media companies face when they resurrect older movies in modern times.
Song of the South: the difficult legacy of Disney's most shocking movie
Disney Plus adds disclaimer about racist movie stereotypes
posted by beesbees (79 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
The second link is borked. Perhaps you meant it to go here: https://abcnews.go.com/Business/wireStory/disney-adds-disclaimer-racist-movie-stereotypes-67020903?
posted by filthy light thief at 8:30 AM on November 23, 2019


[I've subbed in that link for the broken one, let me know if you wanted a different link OP.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 8:32 AM on November 23, 2019


You Must Remember This podcast has returned with a new season, 5 episodes in of "Six Degrees of Song of the South". Good listening on a complicated and often regrettable legacy.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:42 AM on November 23, 2019 [23 favorites]


Newsweek has Warner Brothers' warning:
"The cartoons you are about to see are products of their time. They may depict some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that were commonplace in American society. These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today. While these cartoons do not represent today's society, they are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed."
The Verge's coverage also notes that WB DVDs include a video disclaimer, by Whoopi Goldberg (YT clip).

Collider's coverage cites the recent Watchment warning, but calls it a parody. It may feel over the top, but given that social media companies are spreading hate and fear in the name of "increased engagement," I think calling out shitty depictions in previously released media, as well as modern recreations of historic people and events, is quite appropriate.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:48 AM on November 23, 2019 [15 favorites]


Apparently they are still totally happy to profit from peddling racist stereotypes though. Fuck Disney.
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:49 AM on November 23, 2019 [4 favorites]


“It's both possible, and even necessary, to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of its more problematic or pernicious aspects.” ― Anita Sarkeesian
If we sat around waiting for "perfect" media we'd never really watch anything. That said, I can't watch How I Met Your Mother anymore. It's just too ick.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 8:55 AM on November 23, 2019 [20 favorites]


Fantasia used to have an appearance of a really awful "pickaninny" stereotype during The Pastoral Symphony segment. It was later edited out. I once got to see an original cut of the movie and was horrified when I saw it. Racist imagery aside, it really broke the spell of the entire scene to the point where I'm amazed it was ever there in the first place. Talk about normalized racism.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:01 AM on November 23, 2019 [14 favorites]


We're watching Disney+ on an in-TV app (Sony Bravia, FWIW), and just checked out Dumbo. No warning of racism, just "this movie contains depictions of tobacco," the same brief text note that was included on The Sword in the Stone and Steamboat Willie (back when Mickey was actually mouse-sized, somewhat). I'm not sure where the disclaimer is supposed to appear, but it's not being presented on every platform at this time.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:12 AM on November 23, 2019 [2 favorites]



We're watching Disney+ on an in-TV app (Sony Bravia, FWIW), and just checked out Dumbo. No warning of racism, just "this movie contains depictions of tobacco,"


That's funny, considering the African American/crow depictions and serious alcohol intoxication that sets up the aforementioned scene.

I guess a warning for objectionable material isn't unreasonable. I think better than a PMRC-style warning would be a TCM-style introduction by a host placing additionally historical context and info/trivia that might be applicable.
posted by 2N2222 at 9:31 AM on November 23, 2019 [8 favorites]


We could issue nametags like this: "The person you are about to meet is a product of an earlier time." Especially good for family holiday gatherings.
posted by PhineasGage at 9:31 AM on November 23, 2019 [75 favorites]


I wonder when they're going to add that disclaimer to Gone With the Wind.
posted by Omon Ra at 9:32 AM on November 23, 2019 [10 favorites]


I watch a lot of old movies and casual racism was just so common in classic Hollywood entertainment. Criterion has the 1974 MGM retrospective That's Entertainment up which is full of all those great numbers from classic musicals. I'd seen it when it came and was happy to revisit it a few days go and was thoroughly enjoying it until I hit a very long clip of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland doing blackface. Not only did Busby Berkeley stage this in 1941 but then MGM liked it so much that they included it in their clip-show 30 years later.
posted by octothorpe at 9:33 AM on November 23, 2019 [7 favorites]


Came to mention the current You Must Remember This season -- it's really worthwhile.

A thing that is mentioned in the first article but kinda can't be reiterated enough is, Song of the South can't remotely be explained as being "of its time". It was notably regressive and racist when it was released, with organizations like the NAACP speaking out against it and white allies of the nascent black civil rights movement also decrying it.

Also worth pointing out: the crow in Dumbo named Jim Crow is a lot less likely to have been named to reference the laws, but instead to reference the thing that the laws were nicknamed after. Jim Crow was a popular minstrel character, typically played by white performers in blackface, and as you can imagine was basically a pile of negative stereotypes. That character and that name in common culture was used long before it got attached to segregation law, and Disney using the name is a pretty explicit acknowledgment of the character being based off a minstrel character.
posted by tocts at 9:40 AM on November 23, 2019 [54 favorites]


I have to say, I wish they'd either remove the irredeemable ones from "fun" distribution or if possible edit out the really bad bits. Leave the originals available for people who have a deep interest in Disney or animation or racism in popular culture, etc, but don't include them for routine, mass distribution. I think it does more harm than good.

I mean, similarly, there are all kinds of books I don't recommend except to people who have a particular or scholarly interest in the author/period/genre/etc because I think the casual bigotry or ignorance in the books takes them well out of the "fun" category. It's not that those books need to be forever struck from the register, but given the vast, vast quantities of books out there, when you're reading purely for amusement there's no particular reason to read, eg, the detective novels with the casual anti-semitism or the feminist novels with transphobia.
posted by Frowner at 9:43 AM on November 23, 2019 [13 favorites]


This is a problem that I have had with Marx Brothers films for quite some time. I'm a big fan. But I'll be watching, slapstick comedy, silly jokes, innuendo and then... bam, minstrelsy. Blatant stereotypes. I don't watch them much anymore.
posted by Splunge at 9:48 AM on November 23, 2019 [10 favorites]


They could also just give away the most racist stuff for free, rather than basically admitting they are too lucrative to throw away or censor. I actually agree with the notion it’s not ideal to pretend the problematic material never existed, I just don’t think it’s ok to (continue to) take in massive profit from it (and then use that to subvert democracy and abuse labor, etc.)

They are basically saying “we know this is bad but we love money, but hey you all know that already”.
posted by SaltySalticid at 9:52 AM on November 23, 2019 [7 favorites]


A thing that is mentioned in the first article but kinda can't be reiterated enough is, Song of the South can't remotely be explained as being "of its time". It was notably regressive and racist when it was released, with organizations like the NAACP speaking out against it and white allies of the nascent black civil rights movement also decrying it.

You see the excuse used a lot that "it was a more innocent time" or "they didn't know it was offensive" but if you go back an read contemporary writing, people were mad about these depictions at the time they were made. Theaters showing Birth of a Nation were picketed by groups protesting the depiction of southern blacks and the re-writing of history. Filmmakers knew exactly what they were doing at the time.
posted by octothorpe at 9:52 AM on November 23, 2019 [47 favorites]


If we sat around waiting for "perfect" media we'd never really watch anything.

So? That sounds like a problem for the media rights holders, not for me.
posted by Faint of Butt at 10:10 AM on November 23, 2019 [12 favorites]


I have to say, I wish they'd either remove the irredeemable ones from "fun" distribution or if possible edit out the really bad bits. Leave the originals available for people who have a deep interest in Disney or animation or racism in popular culture, etc, but don't include them for routine, mass distribution.

I don't know how this is done in an age of streaming without some convoluted dancing about the issues.

As an example, I've never seen the "picaninny" scene of Fantasia that Thorzad mentioned, though I had always heard of it. And I think I appreciate having never viewed a copy of the movie with that scene. Then again, I'm still a bit peeved that there's a generation who came up not knowing that Han shot first.
posted by 2N2222 at 10:11 AM on November 23, 2019 [3 favorites]


This is a problem that I have had with Marx Brothers films for quite some time.

We have a holiday tradition of watching Duck Soup and every year, every time the minstrel bit comes up, it feels like I’ve just been hit. And I’m glad for it. It is always useful to remember that at any point in mass media, there were always ideas and attitudes that deserve to be remembered as terrible.

Being reminded in Duck Soup is like an annual check-up — it reminds me to always examine everything I read or see to ask, “What have I internalized as normal that I should not have?” I think the Disney+ stuff will be useful for that too.

We have a third grader and a firm screen time policy where she only watches if one of us is in the room, and it’s been pretty great to have ad how conversations about ideas and behavior she finds confusing and infuriating, to be able to say, “Look, there’s a big difference between an idea that’s been normalized and an idea that is right.”
posted by sobell at 10:14 AM on November 23, 2019 [27 favorites]


You see the excuse used a lot that "it was a more innocent time" or "they didn't know it was offensive" but if you go back an read contemporary writing, people were mad about these depictions at the time they were made.

I haven't heard the podcast referenced above, but I do remember from reading a Walt Disney biography that at least a couple of people were telling him before he even started making Song of the South that he should pick different material. What amazes me more than that, however, was that after years of refusing to reissue the movie (and rightfully so) that they made an amusement park ride out of it (in 1989 no less). I still refer to that as the "Joel Chandler Harris Memorial Slip and Slide" because, seriously WTF Disney?!
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 10:21 AM on November 23, 2019 [10 favorites]


I want to see Song of the South, once. I’m an adult, I understand the context. I’m not going to suddenly start thinking slavery was a good idea. Disney should just raise the age rating on it.

Disney periodically talks about remaking it, but always chickens out.
I think they should remake it because it has within it a positive modern film. The elements are already there. Uncle Remus is the wise hero, teaching common sense through the medium of African folk stories relocated to the American South (which is what those Brer Rabbit stories are). In fact he could be teaching his grandkids how to survive in a biased society, through the medium of the stories. He wouldn’t have to be teaching a little white kid. It would be written and directed by POC and it would be great.
posted by w0mbat at 10:26 AM on November 23, 2019 [7 favorites]


There are plenty of examples of pernicious racism in Song of the South that are right there on the surface: the minstrelsy of the animated characters, particularly Br’er Fox; the slang in the dialogue; a wandering chorus singing traditional black songs; and, most notoriously of all, a fable where Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear use a tar baby to fool and ensnare Br’er Rabbit. (That part didn’t make Splash Mountain.) Yet the subtle low point of the film comes in Remus’s narration just before Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah, when he reminiscences about how things were “a long time ago,,” when “every day was mighty satisfactual”. “If you’ll excuse me for saying so,” he adds, “’twas better all around.”

Code Switch on Mickey Mouse and, in particular, "Steamboat Willie":

SAMMOND: And in that cartoon, he plays a stevedore on a steamboat, presumably in the South. And he loads the - he loads the steamboat with materials, gets on, and he starts to play a tune on the animals' bodies. And that tune is "Turkey In The Straw" - what we now call "Turkey In The Straw"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TURKEY IN THE STRAW")

SAMMOND: ...But back in the day, it was known as "Old Zip Coon." And it was from the minstrel stage.

[...]

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MICKEY MOUSE CLUBHOUSE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Mickey) Hey, everybody. It's me, Mickey Mouse.

DEMBY: But Nicholas says in those early days, he was a trickster. He was a mischief-maker who was always up to no good, just like the minstrels who were always trying to get over. And Nicholas emphasized, like, look. Disney was hardly the first to be doing this. In those early days of animation, cartoonists were cribbing from this visual language of vaudeville and, you know, from each other. And those white gloves, those are the gloves that blackface performers wore.


As octothorpe mentioned above, they knew what they were doing -- it was inherently ideological, not some innocent byproduct of people "not knowing any better."
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 10:30 AM on November 23, 2019 [24 favorites]


My approach to viewing old movies, art, tv, etc. is to see them as artifacts of a past that we have (hopefully) grown past. They exist, to some degree, as good examples of how insidious casual racism is which, in turn, helps make us more attuned to these things and better able to properly deal with them today.

Yes, it's very painful to watch. On the other hand, I'd much rather not go back and cleanse old films etc. of these horrible images exactly because they're horrible. We need to be shown our horrible actions, and made to see exactly why they're horrible. They're history lessons people, unfortunately, still need to be confronted with.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:31 AM on November 23, 2019 [6 favorites]


Good quote from the Newsweek article:

The company “needs to follow through in making a more robust statement that this was wrong, and these depictions were wrong,” said Psyche Williams-Forson, chairwoman of American studies at the University of Maryland at College Park. “Yes, we’re at a different time, but we’re also not at a different time.”
posted by mediareport at 10:31 AM on November 23, 2019 [3 favorites]


Skip it for good reasons, but if you want to see what was edited out of the centaur scene in Fantasia (for damn good reason), it's here, assorted short clips, total lasts 1m30s.
posted by bartleby at 10:49 AM on November 23, 2019 [6 favorites]


They should just give away the most racist stuff for free
I disagree; public-domaining SotS would just let it get spread around and used in ways that would make the world worse. (And from their end, that would Tarnish The Brand.)
What they should do is sign over the rights to the NAACP.
Both cover their asses and do the right thing, by having a press conference and saying. "We made this, we're ashamed of it. We've thought about it, and it's not for us to either erase this or to profit from it. So we're giving it to you. You decide whether to destroy it, or exhibit it as a teaching tool, or whatever you decide."
posted by bartleby at 11:01 AM on November 23, 2019 [26 favorites]


mandolin conspiracy: And those white gloves, those are the gloves that blackface performers wore.

TIL.

I recall hearing that Mickey's gloves were animators' gloves, worn to keep from smudging cels, and it looks like Disney's fandom/wikia site calls these "toon gloves," and claim it's uncertain why so many characters wear them. This Vox article confirms Mickey's minstrel origins.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:02 AM on November 23, 2019 [10 favorites]


For some reason I was under the impression that Song of the South was made in the 70s. For whatever that’s worth.
posted by badbobbycase at 11:04 AM on November 23, 2019


It's the full 9-minute segment, but here's a somewhat better side-by-side scan of the black caricature satyr censored from Fantasia, re: bartleby's comment. The racist depictions show up at 1:04, 2:16 and scattered through the rest.
posted by mediareport at 11:04 AM on November 23, 2019


Disney should just raise the age rating on it.

Give them an "X" rating. If you want to see them you can but they are off limits to children (and WalMart)
posted by Mitheral at 11:05 AM on November 23, 2019 [4 favorites]


(Oh, to be clear, the racist satyr caricature was removed from the 2010 release of Fantasia; I don't know which version Disney+ is currently offering. Can someone with the service verify? I'm curious.)
posted by mediareport at 11:11 AM on November 23, 2019


I mean, I just started watching Pocahontas and had to turn it off because of the irredeemable racism about 15 minutes in. I suppose they handwaved away songs about the British enthusiasm for killing savages and "injuns" because of "history," but everything else about the Powhatan was still pretty damn racist. But they didn't give Pocahontas a racism disclaimer, because 1995 wasn't that long ago and in a lot of ways we're still stuck there.
posted by ChuraChura at 11:13 AM on November 23, 2019 [29 favorites]


There's this documentary about Disney called Mickey Mouse Monopoly, it isn't great, but delivers some interesting points.

Someone in the film notes that you're not allowed to publish a book that critiques Disney with "Disney" in the title without being sued, which makes the books hard to find, they were also not allowed to publish photographs of Disneyland without their consent, which maked Disneyland even more "dreamy" I suppose.
posted by beesbees at 11:16 AM on November 23, 2019 [2 favorites]


It was notably regressive and racist when it was released

Yeah the "of its time" argument is bullshit in general. Really just an excuse to distance ourselves (white people in particular) from who we are, still.

Hitler was of his time too and yet to a contemporary majority was always evil. The same people who enjoyed these cartoons went across an ocean to fight him. (Not that they necessarily knew specifically why.)
posted by klanawa at 11:41 AM on November 23, 2019 [4 favorites]


[One comment deleted. First, don't use outdated racial terms here. Second, if you're a white American please don't say categorically that something isn't racist. It's ok to appreciate some positive aspects of a thing, but don't deny the negative and Very Extremely Racist aspects that are very, very obviously present -- that's an impossible position for good faith discussion to start from.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 12:03 PM on November 23, 2019 [16 favorites]


[And adding to that comment, for anyone who doesn't know the context: This past year, Metafilter has had a lot of discussions about ways that racism creates an unwelcoming or harmful atmosphere for many community members. Ways white site members can thoughtlessly say things that are harmful or alienating about issues of race. We're trying to encourage white members to do better, specifically to think twice before weighing in on subjects where non-white people are the ones who are most affected -- such as in this case, racist stereotypes/depictions. Please check out the new Community Guidelines and the further explanation about how members of dominant groups should take extra care in threads about issues that affect marginalized groups.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 12:22 PM on November 23, 2019 [43 favorites]


What amazes me more than that, however, was that after years of refusing to reissue the movie (and rightfully so) that they made an amusement park ride out of it (in 1989 no less).

They should have reskinned Splash Mountain as Frozen and left the Maelstrom ride at Epcot alone.
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:24 PM on November 23, 2019 [6 favorites]


What amazes me more than that, however, was that after years of refusing to reissue the movie (and rightfully so) that they made an amusement park ride out of it (in 1989 no less).

I think you're slightly off in your timeline of when Disney stopped wanting to show Song of the South. It was re-released to theater repeatedly between its release in 1946 and the last time it was shown widely, in 1986. The lag between re-releases was less to do with Disney re-evaluating it than their general marketing strategy of putting films "into the vault" for long periods of time, and then making a lot of money by bringing them back to theaters for a limited time.

The fact that Splash Mountain opened in 1989 isn't a huge shock, in that light. Disney was still willing to show the film widely and publicly only 3 years prior. It was only sometime after 1986 that they finally decided maybe it was doing more harm to their bottom line than good.
posted by tocts at 12:43 PM on November 23, 2019 [9 favorites]


What they should do is sign over the rights to the NAACP.

Yes, I agree now that’s 100 better than PD; I didn’t see that at first: my main beef here is them continuing to profit richly from this shit but pretending it’s ok because of a (rather weak, milquetoast) warning.
posted by SaltySalticid at 12:43 PM on November 23, 2019 [1 favorite]


What amazes me more than that, however, was that after years of refusing to reissue the movie (and rightfully so) that they made an amusement park ride out of it (in 1989 no less).

So, I don’t know if this Splash Mountain ad from 1989 makes things better or worse...
posted by Huffy Puffy at 12:44 PM on November 23, 2019 [3 favorites]


I am basically entirely ignorant of Song of the South. I've been to Disney World and wondered what film Splash Mountain was supposed to be referencing as I'd never heard of the characters. If anyone has a moment to indulge a genuine question: what is it about this film that means it won't die? We'll be stuck with Birth of a Nation because it's significant to the history of film (it was the first film to cut within a scene, if I remember correctly), but as far as I can gather, Song of the South seems notable only for its racism.
posted by hoyland at 12:57 PM on November 23, 2019


I mean, the answer is basically: the racism. Song of the South is of a piece with Gone With the Wind -- idyllic, ashistoric representations of a South that never really existed, which allow whites to fantasize about "the good old days", when people (non-whites) knew their place.
posted by tocts at 1:04 PM on November 23, 2019 [6 favorites]


I have a digital copy of Song of the South and Disney’s short “The Making of a Nazi” (equally racist) that were given to me by a former video store owner who was “cease and desisted” out of being able to rent them, and who also strongly believed neither should be erased from our cultural awareness.

For those who have never seen them, and agree with the principles of the video store owner, I am happy to Dropbox them. Please ask via private channels.
posted by Silvery Fish at 1:26 PM on November 23, 2019


Tail-end baby boomer here, and not only was Song of the South still in release, and very popular, but there was still a lot of minstrelsy in popular entertainment; we learned "Jimmy Crack Corn" in school, complete with "The master's gone away" in the chorus, although that and the other minstrel songs that we learned no longer had the N-word in them. (This would have been about late sixties to early seventies.) Also, even though SotS has been pulled from distribution, its theme song, the Oscar-winning "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" (the title coming from another minstrel song, a variation on "Turkey in the Straw" called, I kid you not, "Zip Coon"), continues to be covered. We also covered the Laura Ingalls Wilder books in school, including the bit in one of the early books in which Pa Ingalls takes part in a minstrel show, without comment. Old times here are not forgotten.
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:34 PM on November 23, 2019 [13 favorites]


If anyone has a moment to indulge a genuine question: what is it about this film that means it won't die? We'll be stuck with Birth of a Nation because it's significant to the history of film (it was the first film to cut within a scene, if I remember correctly), but as far as I can gather, Song of the South seems notable only for its racism.

The podcast You Must Remember This people mention above addresses this pretty well, actually. It's not so much that this specific film is so notable that it kept on getting rereleased by demand, it's more that all Disney films went through a re-release craze now and then in the past. The film also goes out of its way to emphasize that it takes place after the Civil War, during the era of Reconstruction, which is meant to be a sort of "slavery is over and that makes everything okay" prophylactic on the whole thing. There is a song that the plantation workers sing about how they are content to stay there since it is "the only home I know" - implying that remaining in subservience was their choice, rather than being because of any legacy of the slave system.

A couple of the times Song of the South was re-released came during times when racial tension was getting fraught, and some in the audiences may have indulged in escapism, telling themselves that "look, it's a film where a black man and a little white boy get along, the races can get along okay!"and not necessarily acknowledging the subtext of "Uncle Remus is content with what he has, he's not rioting or marching on Washington or anything like that! Boy, those were the days!"

Disney started the whole marketing thing of every so often bringing a film "out of the vault" for a rerelease n the 80s or 90s, where they would release a film for screening for a limited time and then make fuss about how it was going "back in the vault" as a means to create a sense of scarcity to encourage people to see it. Song Of The South likely would be one such film that would at some point have been brought back "out of the vault", but by the 90s it just got too blatant that "y'know, maybe this one isn't such a good idea."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:55 PM on November 23, 2019 [11 favorites]


For some reason I was under the impression that Song of the South was made in the 70s. For whatever that’s worth.

It was re-released in the 70’s, and I saw it in the theater then when I was 7 or 8. I of course also thought it was new. I also don’t remember a thing about it except some vague visions of animated birds. I’ll have to ask my mom if she had any idea about it when she took me.
posted by schoolgirl report at 2:10 PM on November 23, 2019 [2 favorites]


Minor point-- mediareport, that's a caricature black centaur, not satyr.

I'd completely forgotten him, I thought what would be taken out were the black/zebbra centaur servants, but apparently not.

And on this viewing, I'm not entirely pleased by the color-matched centaur couples.

Check me on this-- I think there's a bit in The Song of the South about not leaving because you just take yourself with you. You should learn to be happy where you are. Was it actually there? It's toxic about abusive situations in general, but especially foul if applied to slavery.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 2:37 PM on November 23, 2019 [2 favorites]


I'm of African, European and Indigenous US ancestry. I got my BA in Communications (with a concentration in Film History, Theory, and Criticism) in the early 90s. I remember having to see and listen to a lot of offensive media in school as part of my courses, like SotS, the Amos and Andy radio and TV shows, GWTW, Birth of a Nation, a Stepin Fetchit film, Charlie Chan, WB's Bosko cartoons (Bosko was originally characterized as a black boy, with the minstrel accent and all), etc., etc.

We had in-depth discussions in my sections on why these media properties were offensive and why they were made, and boy! did it get heated. Usually I was the only student in my section with any non-white ancestry (and sometimes the only POC in the entire class), and I got tired of pointing out to my white classmates who'd grown up on and loved these properties how these depictions of non-white people were wrong, hateful, and said something awful about the psyches of the people who created and adored watching them. Props to my TAs and professors for having my back.

Yet the subtle low point of the film comes in Remus’s narration just before Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah, when he reminiscences about how things were “a long time ago,,” when “every day was mighty satisfactual”. “If you’ll excuse me for saying so,” he adds, “’twas better all around.”


My maternal great grandparents were in terror of their lives while in Virginia, Arkansas and Alabama because of white people in the goddamned 1930s and 40s, never mind "the old days" these white people had James Baskett talk about. I wonder if it didn't feel like ashes in his mouth to recite those lines. White people put this lie in the mouth of this black man to make it sound like the truth and to make white people feel better about their racism. Disney would happily have black people pay for Disney+. I'll keep my money, thanks.

So many things from the old days I start watching, and then I get to a blackface or minstrel part, or a part where Etta Moten sings on behalf of white people's pain and suffering, but has no story line of her own and is uncredited. And it's just bullshit. I've seen old Oscar Michaux pictures, and he's got the colorism stuff going on, and I throw up my hands. The animus against non-white people permeates everything.
posted by droplet at 2:43 PM on November 23, 2019 [65 favorites]


OK Walt.
posted by srboisvert at 3:00 PM on November 23, 2019 [2 favorites]


These parts of the films need to be preserved as historical documents but that does not mean they should be presented as entertainment--especially for younger audiences. I don't understand why people find it so very very very challenging to figure out that not airing Triumph of the Will casually doesn't mean it's been removed from the historical record. It means we treat it as something that is important to understand as historical context but also as something that is not okay or fun or pleasurable.

...Or rather, I do understand it, but I have contempt for it. You can argue about the exact details of the manner in which such material should be handled, and maybe that will need to change as different audiences relate to texts differently in changing cultures, but the "historical erasure" argument at its core is just so obviously bad faith that I really never ever want to hear it again.
posted by praemunire at 3:46 PM on November 23, 2019 [24 favorites]


a Stepin Fetchit film

I am not able to find anywhere online the 11 minutes that have been cut from Fetchit's "Stand Up and Cheer." (This was the movie that launched Shirley Temple's career, but she only has a few minutes of screen time.)

I don't believe in ever censoring movies, but based on what wasn't cut, hoo boy.
posted by Melismata at 6:56 PM on November 23, 2019


Tail-end baby boomer here, and not only was Song of the South still in release, and very popular, but there was still a lot of minstrelsy in popular entertainment; we learned "Jimmy Crack Corn" in school, complete with "The master's gone away" in the chorus, although that and the other minstrel songs that we learned no longer had the N-word in them. (This would have been about late sixties to early seventies.)

My kids were taught minstrel songs in preschool in the twenty fucking teens. And you can find people right here on Metafilter replying to my ask question about how to address this with the school saying why bother, pick your battles, blah fucking blah.

The past isn't dead. It's not even past.
posted by medusa at 7:18 PM on November 23, 2019 [29 favorites]


“This program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions.”

This would be appropriate for every Disney animated movie.

They need to acknowledge the difference between "outdated cultural depictions" (for example, Lady and the Tramp's sexism) and, (if they don't want to admit to "racist content" directly) "offensive stereotypes" (like the crows in Dumbo).

And they need to get rid of the "may contain" waffling. If they can't say whether a film has offensive or misleading content, or however they're labeling it, they can't say whether it's appropriate for children.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 8:48 PM on November 23, 2019 [2 favorites]


but as far as I can gather, Song of the South seems notable only for its racism.

The podcast You Must Remember This people mention above addresses this pretty well, actually.

Yeah, it's good. The season's not quite done yet but up to this point what I've learned from Longworth to answer this question is:

- when it came out it was kind of a cash in on the success of Gone with the Wind

- it was at best a modest success, and it was clear enough even to many white critics at the time (and to an extent the people trying to thread the needle in making it) that it was fairly retrograde racially

- like many Disney films it got several theatrical re-releases over the years, and by the 70s and 80s it offered the right mix of reactionary nostalgia and very simplified depiction of interracial friendship that it was fairly popular

- at this point its appeal is pretty much just that it's the forbidden Disney movie that the PC Police don't want you to see!
posted by atoxyl at 9:54 PM on November 23, 2019 [5 favorites]


My mind is actually kind of blown by the SotS and Splash Mountain connections, but more importantly the personal relevation that apparently SotS was just such an institutional part of my childhood that it was effectively background noise to the point that I forgot that the characters and forgettable "story" part of the ride at Disneyland were all from that movie in particular. The story part of Splash mountain mainly focuses on the briar patch part of the Uncle Remus stories.

I remember being really uncomfortable about SotS and other racist parts Disney films. I saw all of the originals growing up. My grandpa was really into buying VHS/Beta movies when you could finally do that, so he had stuff like the original releases of Fantasia and SotS.

I also read some non-Disney version of Uncle Remus as a kid complete with the original pidgin and... oh my God I'm having a moment here.

I also just found the whole story and dark ride part of Splash Mountain to just be awkward, contrived, annoying and aesthetically unpleasing even before we start unpacking SotS. For whatever it's worth the whole thing just seems tacked on to the ride (it is) but it's also just really shrill and strident feeling, like it was something to be endured for the thrill of the one big flume drop. Their take on Zip-a-dee-doo-dah is particularly manic, over the top and just sickly syrupy because: Disneyland.

I'm actually kind of stunned about the scope and depth of this institutionalized racism and it's making me feel kind of weird and dirty about how many times I've been in Disneyland in general or on that ride, or how many times I've heard Zip-a-dee-doo-dah or even found myself randomly humming it without really thinking too much about where it all came from. It was just kind of there.

And I just fell down a wikipedia - ugh, sorry - rabbit hole about Uncle Remus, the origins of a lot of these folk tales and songs... holy shit, what the FUCK, Disney!?
posted by loquacious at 2:05 AM on November 24, 2019 [1 favorite]


From Tar-Baby:
Walt Disney Studios released Song of the South, which contains the Tar-Baby story, in 1946. The film was never released on VHS or DVD in North America due to concerns about racially insensitive content. The ride Splash Mountain, which is in three of the Walt Disney theme parks, is based on the stories by Uncle Remus. However, instead of the Tar-Baby, Br'er Rabbit is captured in a beehive. The Tar-Baby appears in the Toontown countryside in Who Framed Roger Rabbit and was featured as one of the guests in House of Mouse.

WHAT THE FUCK, DISNEY?
posted by loquacious at 2:09 AM on November 24, 2019 [1 favorite]


For those whose only knowledge of Br'er Rabbit is hearing rumors about what's in SoS, NPR has a good explainer on the oral history of the stories and the political allegory within them. Just like "spirituals" were not just church songs, these stories are not just children's stories told by white people in blackface.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:15 AM on November 24, 2019 [15 favorites]


apparently SotS was just such an institutional part of my childhood that it was effectively background noise

Yup - as an older GenX I might have seen the 1972 or 1973 re-releases, I have a possibly-unreliable memory of seeing the film at elementary school or Boy Scout camp (educational institutions can often get access to films outside of commercial release schedules), I know I had some kind of book-and-record set, and I guaran-damn-tee clips of the animated Br'er Rabbit parts and the songs (especially "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah") were regularly broadcast on TV as part of The Wonderful World of Disney.

End result is there's undoubtedly a bunch of Boomers, GenX'ers, and Millenials whose impression of SOTS is that it's a forgettable movie that just existed as a skeletal framework to hang some songs and animated bits on.

I also read some non-Disney version of Uncle Remus as a kid complete with the original pidgin

One assumes your Wikipedia dives led you to realize those would be the original "Uncle Remus" books by Joel Chandler Harris, whose legacy is rightly rather complicated, but who definitely had a more complex and nuanced approach to creating those stories than the cheerfully racist inanities of SOTS. What The Fuck Disney, indeed.
posted by soundguy99 at 5:13 AM on November 24, 2019 [5 favorites]


I never saw SotS (and, to be clear, it's not on Disney Plus), but I did see the Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah "Sing-Along Songs" tape, also from 1986, many many times. That appears to be the first one they released, and it kept the song alive without having to re-release the whole movie. (They went on to do a bunch more of those, for other movies that they did re-release.)
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:53 AM on November 24, 2019 [1 favorite]


Yup - as an older GenX I might have seen the 1972 or 1973 re-releases,

I saw it too in the theater, around 197-77 or so. I liked Brer Fox, Bear and Rabbit and the overall animation mixed with live action style.
posted by Liquidwolf at 9:51 AM on November 24, 2019


I had assumed that Splash Mountain, the Disney ride based off of the Song of the South, had been constructed around the opening of Disneyland due to being based off an obviously-racist, "forgotten" film.

It opened in 1989. That alone seems telling to me about how Disney actually felt about pulling the film.
posted by No One Ever Does at 10:39 AM on November 24, 2019 [4 favorites]


One assumes your Wikipedia dives led you to realize those would be the original "Uncle Remus" books by Joel Chandler Harris, whose legacy is rightly rather complicated, but who definitely had a more complex and nuanced approach to creating those stories than the cheerfully racist inanities of SOTS. What The Fuck Disney, indeed.

Exactly this.

That and how many places and parts of the SotS characters show up in Disney parks and media. It's like I just put on the sunglasses from They Live and all of this ambient racism is showing up highlighted in day glow in places I wasn't even thinking about it.

It opened in 1989. That alone seems telling to me about how Disney actually felt about pulling the film.

And I remembered when it opened and how much totally crazy hype there was about it when it opened in peak late 80s values of hype.

I'm also looking at how Eisner was originally trying to use the to cross-promote the movie... Splash? What the fuck, why!? Even though the ride was always planned from the beginning to have a SotS theme.

I was trying to articulate this upthread but I remember riding Splash Mountain when it first opened and just being... really irritated by the ride experience, songs, animatronics and theming and not being able to really understand why. I knew I didn't really like the pastiche of the country folk for starters. I remember being irritated by the SotS movie, too, but not really understanding or having the language to question what I was seeing.
posted by loquacious at 12:11 PM on November 24, 2019 [4 favorites]


Also meant to include this amazing gem of fuckery, emphasis mine:

From the SotS wiki:
The film premiered on November 12, 1946, at the Fox Theater in Atlanta.[25] Walt Disney made introductory remarks, introduced the cast, then quietly left for his room at the Georgian Terrace Hotel across the street; he had previously stated that unexpected audience reactions upset him and he was better off not seeing the film with an audience. James Baskett was unable to attend the film's premiere because he would not have been allowed to participate in any of the festivities, as Atlanta was then a racially segregated city.[32]
WHAAAAAAAAAAAAT THE FUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK DISNEY!?
posted by loquacious at 12:19 PM on November 24, 2019 [7 favorites]


> (Oh, to be clear, the racist satyr caricature was removed from the 2010 release of Fantasia; I don't know which version Disney+ is currently offering. Can someone with the service verify? I'm curious.

It's showing the one without the black satyr.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:13 PM on November 24, 2019 [1 favorite]


Thanks. So they're censoring some, but not all, racist depictions from Disney's past.
posted by mediareport at 7:55 PM on November 24, 2019


I want to see Song of the South, once. I’m an adult, I understand the context. I’m not going to suddenly start thinking slavery was a good idea. Disney should just raise the age rating on it.

As someone whose parents had it on VHS (I'm a Brit) you almost certainly don't want to see it more than once. It's set after the war so slavery isn't an issue, and it's certainly not Dumbo; there's no direct intent to belittle and Uncle Remus is the only character with a functional brain even if his job is to provide advice for the annoying child protagonist. Most of the racism (and it is racist) is down to Walt Disney's rose tinted memories of post-war plantations where everyone should be happy with their place.

The reason I believe Disney don't re-release Song of the South is that it is incredibly boring. There are three mediocre animated shorts (the three Brer Fox/Brer Rabbit vignettes, one including a literal tar baby), and Zip-ah-de-doo-dah is not only a good song, it arguably contains a mix of live action and animation that was probably the best pre-Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But that's less than a quarter of an hour out of a 90 minute film. And the rest revolves round an exceptionally slow paced annoying kid having very minor problems, going to see Uncle Remus, and Uncle Remus telling him a story that makes him more content with what he has - and this slow pattern being repeated several times.

There are so many rides associated with SotS because it's a reflection of Walt Disney's personal nostalgia goggles. And tying things into it meant they worked with him. But really it's mostly talked about for the racism because if you take the racism away what's left (other than Zip-ah-de-doo-dah which fits neatly onto a singalong tape) is incredibly boring. And Disney wants to at least have the bad bits of its past films be thought of as like Dumbo - entertaining and energetic even if highly offensive rather than soporific.
posted by Francis at 4:23 AM on November 25, 2019 [3 favorites]


I've been thinking for a while about how so many of the pre-war landmark films are incredibly racist. Birth of a Nation, The Jazz Singer, King Kong, Gone with the Wind. These were all huge box office hits and all pushed cinema forward technologically and artistically but are all so hard to watch now. Gone with the Wind is still the box office champ of all time adjusted for inflation and is unlikely ever to lose that title.
posted by octothorpe at 5:07 AM on November 25, 2019


I've been thinking for a while about how so many of the pre-war landmark films are incredibly racist

Pre-war, post war, it doesn't matter much since all Hollywood movies during the production code era had to be racist, it was part of the code to a great extent, but went beyond the specifics of the code to a more complete embrace of certain racist ideologies around how blacks could be portrayed and how they mixed with whites onscreen. Looking for any non-racist Hollywood movie during the code era would be something like the equivalent of searching for a non-racist business in a time or place with strict segregation laws. You can find some that don't expressly show the racism, but the absence of blacks in those establishments/movies still gives ample proof of its existence if you are paying attention.

What makes this particularly difficult is that some of the movies that did try to push back some against the worst impulses end up now looking more racist then the films that simply pretended blacks didn't exist. Watching a movie like Cabin in the Sky, one of the few Hollywood films that had an entirely black cast, one can notice the racist elements in who the characters are and what they are given to do because that was what could get made, leaving it difficult to appreciate the other elements of the movie for those who care about such things and leaving those who don't to deny there is any racism because it is an all black cast in an enjoyable major production. Trying to thread that needle from the vantage point of today isn't easy.

When it comes to Song of the South, the difficulty is even greater because of Disney's method of collapsing everything to a fantasy middle ground of innocuousness that makes it difficult to give specific name to that which causes offense without seeming like one is over-reacting. They pit nostalgia against slight advance in representation mixed with an appeal to general interpersonal morals while ignoring or distorting the larger situational issues. It's obvious about Song of the South now to many audience members, but Disney still does this today with far less notice since its "our" prejudices and fantasies being appealed to rather than those of the mid-20th century. The major protests against Song of the South occurred before the movie was released largely because of the idea that it was set during the slavery era. After the movie was released the protests didn't end, but they lost momentum because of how Disney works. At least that's according to several sources I've read, one of which, the book Making Movies Black, I've typed out a couple paragraphs from as an example:

Indeed, Baskett as Remus was the core of the issue. He was so extravagantly "winsome", drawing on a guile a career on stage had taught him, that he seemed to overflow with charm, preternatural wisdom, and the unctuousness he drew from the deepest pools of white legend. Centered in the frame where few black actors had ever sat, flanked by two white kids, his woolly head forming a halo as if he were a Tiepolo madonna, his hands gnarled around a crumpled hat, he dominated scenes in which he taught the children the country ways their urbane parents had thought old fashioned. He managed to give black viewers a tolerable dignity, while playing to whites with a reading so densely packed with ancient props and manners that he transported them to a rose colored past. He lighted his balky pipe with a splinter of kindling, laughed in the sexless falsetto that whites had loved in their blacks, and spun stories from a bottomless memory, many of them about Br'er Rabbit, the harmless version that Harris had learned during the Gilded Age in Fulton County. Each story flowed into an animated segment that vibrated with life in the briar patch. Between tales he mediated conflict between parent and child, city and country, and even protected his charges from the white trash who lived up the hollow. ...

As a result of Baskett's charm, not one group of organized blacks mounted a coherent campaign against the Disney movie. Not only were they staggered by the performance, they were at a loss to define their objections except as a form of snobbery. June Blythe of the American Council on Race Relations, a shrewd strategist in the use of film propaganda, urged upon the NAACP some sort of response. But even after (Walter) White wangled a preview from Disney, the black viewers could not agree on what they saw. Gloster Current, a toughminded officer in the NAACP and knowledgeable about show business, seemed taken in by Baskett's "artistic and dynamic" Remus. "My only criticism is," he wrote, "the Negro stereotype of docility...interwoven with the motif of satisfaction with slavery." "So artistically beautiful," wrote another, "that it is difficult to be provoked over the cliches." Hope Spingarn of the NAACP traced this mood to Disney's being so "nervous about the interracial reaction" that he had left "nothing obviously objectionable about the film [even though] it perpetuates the old cliches." Ann Tanneyhill at NUL (National Urban League) sketched a similar dilemma: She raged at the stereotype—"black, fat, greasy, sweaty, laughing, grinning, eyes rolling, white teeth showing predominantly, bowing, scraping, hat in hand"—but admitted to falling wistfully under the spell of "quite wonderful" flashes of animation, "a blaze of color," "excellent" music, and, for that matter, "close to a million dollars" in exploitation money.

It's important to note the part that mentions Baskett's place in the center of the screen and as, essentially, the moral center of the film. This wasn't a place black actors were almost ever seen in movies that had mixed race casts, in Hollywood it was so rare as to be virtually unknown. There were movies where blacks in supporting roles showed exceptional wisdom and skills at times and advised whites, and even more rarely there were performers like Mantan Moreland who would basically be the stars of the movies in terms of draw, but still had to play as supporting the white leads who had little personality at all. Baskett as Remus took a spot in the movie that wouldn't again be really held firmly by a black actor until maybe Poitier finally broke through as an accepted star. That it was done in the service of a plantation story of course is the other side that served to balance out Disney's account of not actually pushing towards a meaningful challenge to the status quo.

Song of the South is just one of the most famous moments in the fight for more and better representation onscreen. The reaction to the film didn't come out of nowhere, but was part of a longer history of behind the scenes maneuvering on the subject that should also be considered with the movie for how it seemed a step back from some gains made during the war when there was a concerted effort to gain black support for the war effort, among other things. The fear was as much of losing ground as it was the movie by itself and keeping this as part of a continuing history rather than a past mistake is important so we don't think we somehow are better than that. The movie as a document offers a lot to think about in how they portray the characters and events if one wants to try to unpack all the various elements. It has some honestly good elements to the portrayals and events, but which are matched by regressive elements that cancel every step forward out with a step back and maybe an extra backwards step thrown in at the end for the effort.
posted by gusottertrout at 8:34 AM on November 25, 2019 [4 favorites]


Pre-war, post war, it doesn't matter much since all Hollywood movies during the production code era had to be racist, it was part of the code to a great extent, but went beyond the specifics of the code to a more complete embrace of certain racist ideologies around how blacks could be portrayed and how they mixed with whites onscreen.

No doubt, I was just restricting my thoughts to movies that had specific innovations in the art such as The Jazz Singer being the first major talkie.
posted by octothorpe at 8:45 AM on November 25, 2019


Oh, sure. I just think it's important to keep in mind that racism in Hollywood is really inescapable no matter which movies you watch as much because some that tried to push things towards the better actually now read as worse than those that ignored the problem because the whole system was corrupted, while of course others are just flat out unacceptable from every angle. Focusing on, say, Jolson gives something of a distorted view of the times and issues because he too had a more complicated relationship with black entertainers and audiences than is immediately apparent today.
posted by gusottertrout at 9:00 AM on November 25, 2019


We watched Peter Pan the other day and I didn't notice a warning (and there should have been one, holy shit). I had never seen it before that I can remember (I'd read the book as a child and I've seen Hook and I, y'know, exist in society, so I thought I knew what it was about) and the gross racism came as a shock. I don't know if the stuff with the native Americans was in the book and I just didn't notice as a kid in the '70s (entirely likely). Also Peter Pan himself is a total player, in a really gross way. And the stuff about "mothers." OMG this film.
posted by joannemerriam at 10:46 AM on November 25, 2019 [2 favorites]


There's a warning on the Peter Pan description. It would be good if it had it on the screen before one of these movies played, though, since a lot of people are going to just click on the image of the movie and not read about it before watching.
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:03 AM on November 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


There is a warning on the top of the screen as the movie begins to play when we watch Disney+.
posted by fimbulvetr at 11:06 AM on November 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


Oh, you're right -- I got the warning for tobacco. But not for outdated cultural depictions, unfortunately.
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:47 AM on November 25, 2019


Between the racism crows, the overt elephant abuse, weird sexism (gossipy, cliquey, nasty female elephants) and the alcohol-fueled hallucination/dream sequence, I'm quite comfortable stating that Dumbo is not worth passing on or explaining to future children.
posted by gatorae at 7:09 PM on November 25, 2019 [2 favorites]


The most important thing about Dumbo is that somehow it was made before LSD was invented.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 7:21 PM on November 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


Peter Pan is the subject of an Honest Trailers clip that briefly cycles through racist elements in Disney movies toward the end.

I... acquired a copy of Song of the South years ago and I'd agree with Francis' take: it's mostly just boring. Wren's Nest, Joel Chandler Harris' home, would be an easy day trip, but it's not a high priority. Atlanta (and Disney, and the whole United States) sits atop a tangled legacy in a lot of ways.

(For example, loquacious, Fox Theater was a prestigious place for local premieres (for white people), and just seven years prior to the SotS premiere it had hosted the local debut of Gone With the Wind-- just as segregated, of course, but also attended by a young Martin Luther King Jr. Three years after the SotS premiere, someone hit Margaret Mitchell with a car on that same street.)
posted by tyro urge at 10:31 PM on December 7, 2019 [1 favorite]


[A few comments deleted. Don't spell out offensive words here. It isn't necessary and is hurtful for people to read. Also showing up way after the fact to throw in "here's another super racist thing from movie history" just as a fun-fact feels like ...relishing the chance to say something offensive for its own sake. Don't do that. Act like you want to be here and value other community members. I'm giving you a 24 hour ban.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 11:43 AM on December 11, 2019 [3 favorites]


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