In recent years, corporate entities with long histories like the Walt Disney Company have had to come to terms with the fact that some aspects of their classic content are no longer acceptable to audiences.
In some cases, especially ones pertaining to the upcoming launch of Disney Plus, the Walt Disney Company has been relatively up front about changes it’s making to historical content. The Jim Crow character from the original “Dumbo” will be edited out for Disney Plus; a post-credits scene from “Toy Story 2” that included a casting couch joke got the ax; and Janelle Monae’s Wondaland collective will “reinvent” “The Siamese Cat Song” for the upcoming Disney Plus-only remake of “Lady and the Tramp.”
But there’s one property — a prominent part of the Disney canon, though some may not realize it — that Disney has yet to fully account for: the 1946 animated and live-action musical “Song of the South,” which is based on “Uncle Remus,” a collection of African American folklore. The movie has garnered controversy dating back to its release for its racist depiction of African Americans and glossy portrayal of race relations in the Reconstruction-era Deep South.
In the new season of Hollywood historian Karina Longworth’s acclaimed podcast, “You Must Remember This,” the former film critic delves into the history of “Song of the South” — how it was made, the controversy that surrounded it from the get-go, and how Disney has managed to profit off of the film without ever giving it a home entertainment release.
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The season, which is six episodes long, dropped the first episode Tuesday. Here, Longworth previews some of the key aspects of “Song of the South” listeners can expect to hear more about in “You Must Remember This,” touches on tackling the dark side of Disney, and gives her thoughts on how insensitive historical media should be handled.
How did you go about researching “Song of the South” when all the key players are dead?
Almost all the stories I cover, everybody’s dead. I just basically try to find a paper trail, I try to find the most accurate books and I try to find original documents and stuff like that. With this, that was a bit frustrating because something like [“Song of the South” song] “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” which is such a big part of our culture, it was just produced as a work for hire by two guys who weren’t even Disney employees, so just trying to find out their thought process on writing that song was really, really difficult. When this movie was coming out, [things like that] weren’t necessarily preserved for posterity.
Have you interfaced with Disney at all?
I haven’t had any interaction with Disney yet. I don’t know if they know about the podcast, I don’t know if they will contact me. All of the information in it is public record stuff, so it’s not like I’m publishing anything that they could sue over.
Do you expect to hear from them after the podcast is released in its entirety, or partway through?
For me, it’s a little bit of a tricky situation because my husband wrote and directed a Star Wars movie. He has a relationship with the executives at Disney, but I don’t, and he’s really supportive of my work.
I really don’t know what’s going to happen. I have to say, I’ve been doing this podcast for five years, and certainly there are people alive who I’ve done podcast episodes about, there are people who are family members of people I’ve done podcast episodes about who are out there, who are aware of the podcast, and I’ve had one complaint in five years. I’m really careful to get my facts as correct as possible, so even if people maybe don’t like all of my analysis, it’s difficult for them to complain about it.
Walt Disney campaigned for James Baskett, who plays the controversial character Uncle Remus, to receive an honorary Oscar. From what I’ve read, he attributed a lot of the characterization of Uncle Remus to Baskett, and said Baskett didn’t receive much direction, which seems like a cop-out to me.
“How could it be racist if a black guy decided to perform this way?” I deal with a lot of that stuff in the third episode, which deals with the way minstrel and other negative and damaging African American stereotypes worked their way into this film. I talk all about why they pushed for him to get an honorary Oscar and how that reflected Disney’s racial worldview and the racial worldview of Hollywood at that time.
It seems to reflect comments some people make today implying that because women or people of color accept certain types of roles, they must be satisfied with them.
I definitely deal with that a lot in the season. The second episode is about the actress Hattie McDaniel, and that was a theme of a large part of her career, where she was mostly playing maids and servants in movies. Then she won an Oscar in 1939 for playing a slave in “Gone With the Wind,” so she became the first black person to win an Oscar. But Hollywood basically didn’t know what to do with her except for cast her as maids and servants. So there’s a large discourse surrounding her and many performers at that time which is, do you wanna work, do you wanna make the most money you can make in this industry by working all the time? If you wanna do that, you’re probably going to have to take roles that are not satisfying and are showing you basically being of service to white people. There’s another group that argues that we need to push Hollywood to create more and better representation. So the two groups are at war in the 1930s and ’40s.
“Song of the South” inspired Splash Mountain, which many people aren’t aware of. The ride was created in the ’80s, and by then you’d think Disney might have rethought utilizing such a controversial property. Why didn’t they?
The final episode of the season is about Splash Mountain. I’ll just say that they started developing the ride in the early ’80s after they re-released [“Song of the South”] in 1981 and it was a big hit. And they opened [Splash Mountain] in 1989, so, it takes a long time to develop a theme park ride.
Splash Mountain doesn’t include the character of Uncle Remus, however.
Yeah, certainly there was an attempt to censor aspects of the film that they sort of knew were the most problematic.
What are your thoughts on editing or revising historical works to fit today’s standards?
I’m sure to some extent it’s a case-by-case basis, but I’d like to see more transparency. If you’re really ashamed of these things being in the movies and you don’t want them in there anymore and you cut them out, you should at least make a public statement about why you’re doing that…I know “Song of the South” well enough to know that it seems like they’re just kind of trying to pretend like it doesn’t exist. Doing that creates a scarcity and it turns it into a sort of special cult fetish object, so that people are like, “Why are you preventing this from being seen?” And they’re more interested in it than I think they would be if it was readily available.
As a white woman investigating a situation that strongly affected the black community, did you do anything to examine your own potential biases?
In the first episode, I talk about how I saw this movie as a 6-year-old in a context that was really different than seeing it today. All throughout, I’m aware that some people think that white people should only tell white people stories and black people should be able to tell their own stories. I deal with that as much as possible within the context of the show. One of the fundamental things about this movie is that it’s based on these folk tales that were collected and published by a white guy who got rich off of them without crediting any of the slaves that he says he heard these stories from, without ever sharing any profits with anybody else. So those ideas are all baked into the content and I directly address them as much as possible. But this is also a story about white people too, it’s a story about Walt Disney, it’s a story about a largely white Hollywood power structure.
Does “Song of the South’s” origin story affect Walt Disney’s legacy?
I think it’s a little unfair to single Disney out because nobody in Hollywood was hiring black people to write movies. At least not mainstream Hollywood studio productions. So it’s not like he was the only guy. He would have said to you that he was the most progressive guy in Hollywood just because he made a movie that starred a black guy. It is extremely complicated. Today, the way that they went about this would not be okay at all, and, as I deal with in this podcast season, then, a lot of people protested the way they went about it. It’s not like there were established African American screenwriters or directors in power at any studio in 1946.