Song of the South or Why Disney Has Always Been Politcial

Recently the Orlando Sentinel published an op-ed by Clark County, Nevada district attorney and human thumb Jonathan VanBoskerck titled “I love Disney World, but wokeness is ruining the experience.” Vanny begins his rant by complaining about Disney’s new employee dress code, which allows visible tattoos, culturally inclusive uniforms, and natural hairstyles. Now, Disney is a demonic megacorporation that should be burnt to the ground, but this is just basic minimum human decency. They will still mistreat employees, but at least these workers aren’t being forced to suppress their race or cultural heritage. 

Now, if Vanny had been arguing that these moves are a corporate facade meant to co-opt the language of the oppressed to further capitalist hegemony, he might have been onto something. But no, Vanny complains about this in the context of being an upper-middle-class consumer. As he states: “I’m not traveling across the country and paying thousands of dollars to watch someone I do not know express themselves. I am there for the immersion and the fantasy, not the reality of a stranger’s self-expression.” Based on the information I have provided for you, can you guess what color this man’s skin is? The whiteness shines off this man like made of ivory. 

He complains about the removal of the attempted rape scene from Pirates of the Caribbean and Trader Sam from the Jungle Cruise. Vanny saves his biggest lamentations for the redesign of Splash Mountain, removing the nods to Song of the South. His family’s experience at Disney will be ruined because they have gotten too “political.” This Dennis Nedry impersonator actually meant that Disney acknowledges BIPOC too much, and as a semi-wealthy white fascist, that makes him not feel so happy waddling around Disney World. When conservatives say something is too “political,” they aren’t actually saying they have a problem with politics in pop culture & media. They communicate that they don’t like seeing the side politics they see as opposite from their viewpoints.

Song of the South is a perfect example of how Disney has always been political. They were once a right-wing fascistic corporation, but now they have sprinkled some neoliberalism and co-opted identity politics into the mix. They are not changing Splash Mountain because they honestly believe the film it is associated with was an act of racial violence and erasure. They are changing it because they have experts who have told them it is the right financial move. A corporation will never do anything that harms its bottom line. If it ever becomes financially solvent to embrace the Confederacy and the Antebellum South, Disney will be right there. All corporations are inherently political because they exist within an economic system and economics are political. 

Song of the South is set post-slavery. Though the script made this fact unclear until people advised Disney to make sure they put in some throw-away lines to show these were sharecroppers, not slaves. Without those lines, there is literally no way to distinguish this fact. Johnny (Bobby Driscoll) arrives at his grandmother’s Georgia plantation (staffed by voluntary sharecroppers! They can leave anytime they want!), where he finds he’s going to be living with his mother. His father is returning to Atlanta, where he is running a newspaper and has courted controversy for some reason the film never makes clear. While wandering around the grounds, Johnny meets the famous Uncle Remus (James Baskett), a retired (?) sharecropper who is renowned for telling stories. His stories always involve Br’er Rabbit and his misadventures, avoiding capture by Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear. 

The rest of the film is an insidiously positive attempt to whitewash what Reconstruction looked like but showing happy Black faces working for the hag in the mansion, whom we can assume once owned them as property a handful of years earlier. This decision on how to portray Black people in this period concerning the white power structure makes it horribly racist. This isn’t Birth of a Nation; that is a more overt form of racism, directly portraying Black people as murderous villains. Song of the South is racism through omission, a calculated decision to not represent the world as it was. Because the film obscures precisely when it is happening, it muddies the water even further, leaving the door open for these to be happy slaves toiling away. By stripping out the history, Disney was highly political and pushed an ideology of Black subservient labor being completely happy taking care of these lovely white people. It’s one thing to make a fantasized idealized past out of Middle Ages Europe, but it’s a whole other situation when you choose the 1800s American South. 

Even worse are the seemingly innocuous Br’er Rabbit stories. Uncle Remus and these stories were the partial inventions of a white newspaperman, Joel Chandler Harris. Harris appropriated Black culture with these stories and the dialect he wrote them in. Through the Uncle Remus character, he disguises his whiteness in blackface. Author Alice Walker penned an essay in 1981 titled “Uncle Remus, No Friend of Mine,” where she details how this amounted to cultural theft from Black voices. Some scholars credit Harris with inadvertently preserving pieces of African folklore through his stories, but the issue of authorship is deeply problematic.

In Song of the South, there is a scenario where Bobby is planning to run away from home. Uncle Remus tells a story about Br’er Rabbit wanting to do a similar action, and the moral of the story ends up being to stay where you are, and you will be happier. When you look at the cheerful demeanor of every Black character working away on the plantation, it’s not a giant leap to see that the film is attempting to push the “Blacks were happier as slaves” bullshit narrative. 

Maybe I’m stretching, you might say. We can look at records of the writing of the screenplay, particularly Dalton S. Reymond’s contributions to the script. Reymond’s 51-page treatment was flagged by the Hays office for significant revision, such as removing the term “old darkie” when referencing Uncle Remus. The Hays Office was a notoriously conservative film censorship board put in place during the 1930s, and if they found what was in the script offensive, then it had to have been beyond the pale. Black performer Clarence Muse was brought on board as a consultant for the screenplay and quit when Reymond just ignored any & all of Muse’s suggestions to make the Black characters less stereotypical and more dignified. Maurice Rapf was brought in specifically to pull back Reymond’s “white southern slant,” such as placing the phrases “massa” and “darkey” repeatedly throughout the piece. Rapf, a Jewish man and outspoken leftist, was taken off the project after he and Reymond got into a personal argument. Notice who never gets admonished, the white racist Southerner. He’s seen as the essential piece to the screenplay.

Jonathan VanBoskerck is a piece of racist shit, but sadly he is not alone. America is overwhelmed with white supremacists that want to preserve hatred in the public sphere. They need statues of Confederate generals and racist caricatures in their theme parks. They believe they are entitled to these effigies. Disney is literally doing the bare minimum, and they would love to hide away Song of the South, pretend it never happened. But I say we make sure it never vanishes, but not in the way Old Vanny wants. Let’s keep Song of the South around and surround it with discourse about how slavery is depicted in popular media. I hope this entitled prick never gets to enjoy another vacation for the rest of his life. 

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