Riddle me this: I am what some might call in America a radical liberal. I hate guns, and kinda want to see them all banned. I love Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I say “happy holidays” under zero duress every December. I support universal healthcare and tuition-free college, plus elimination of all college debt. I vehemently support #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, and consider myself an ally to women, minorities, and anyone on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. I understand, as a white, cisgender male that I have a multitude of intrinsic rights others do not due to skin color, my gender, and even my Irish first name and French last name, and I will unashamedly preach on to help the world be a better place.
So what’s the riddle? Here’s the punchline: Song of the South is my favorite Disney movie.
Weird, right? The ￼most racist Disney has ever been, a 1946 movie about singing black people in Reconstruction-era Georgia, full of cringeworthy dialect written by clueless white people, and given my pasty keister has SO MANY choices in the Disney canon that are SO much better…why?
If I really thought about it, I’m sure a big chunk of it is because it’s the hipster in me. I mean, yeah. “Oh, my favorite? Gotta be Song of the South. Never heard of it? Can’t say I’m surprised. You’re not a real Disney fan unless you watch it.” (Geez, I’m a handlebar mustache, a beanie, and a reference to a local microbrewery short of achieving my final form.). But if I could select actual, artistic reasons why I would watch it over anything else, it’s kind of for the same reason I love Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh or The Jungle Book: the characters. Oh, Johnny the other kids are really bad actors by today’s standards, even Disney Channel standards. Ruth Warrick looks really uninvested. The Favers boys are lame. I’m talking about Miss Doshy, Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, Br’er Bear, and of course, Uncle Remus. Performed by incredible actors and the animated ones executed brilliantly, they’re fully dimensional and just the kind of people who are just inherently fun to watch, even if the plot lags. Honestly, if Disney adapted the foibles of the Br’ers into Paul Rudish Mickey Mouse-type shorts, I’m so game.
But if you know anything about Song of the South, it’s either A.) it’s where we got “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah”, B.) it’s where we got Splash Mountain, and/or C.) Disney will never, ever, ever show it because it’s too racist. Seriously, the last time Disney willingly let American eyes gaze upon it was a theatrical release in 1986, three years before Ernest P. Worrell took the first plunge in Disneyland’s Critter Country (Yeah…that really happened. Google it.). In any case, debates rose and fell frequently about when Disney might get around to it, if ever.
Then Disney+ happened.
Simpsons! Marvel! Star Wars! Classic Disney! Jeff Goldblum! Baby Yoda! Gargoyles! And a buttload really, really old and obscure live action Disney stuff! Oh sure, I’ll have to wait until next year for Avengers: Infinity War, but hey, at least I can see The Country Bears! And yet, despite that Disney officially disclosed months ago that Song of the South was not going to be on the service, I think Disney+ is going to change the game on the company’s stance on the movie. Why? Four reasons:
1. The New Content Warning
One of the first things fans noticed when they logged in on November 12th was three words: “outdated cultural depictions”, a warning placed at the introduction summary of movies such as Dumbo, The Aristocats, and Peter Pan. Why is this relevant? Simply put, it’s Disney openly admitting a mea culpa.
See, Disney only admits to wrongdoing to avoid bad publicity or litigation, like if a cast member does something illegal or something. But because they’ve had a family-friendly appeal that’s been fairly consistent for nearly a century, especially as respected, renowned, and profitable as their image is, it behooves them to pretend they’re as pure as the driven snow. Some things are easier to ignore or cover up, like the cigarette in Pecos Bill’s mouth in Melody Time or never mentioning G-Force again. But some, like Dumbo and Peter Pan, are iconic and beloved. While not many talk the crows or the injuns (Compared to those who love everything else about the movies), they are still integral parts of the movies and editing them out would be catastrophic to the films’ integrity as a whole. So they just keep releasing them and downplay their existence to near-non existence. Not a bad way to dodge controversy, but it’s like waiting for your roommate to apologize for using the last of the laundry detergent. You’ll live, and it’s not that bad in the grand scheme of things…but darn it, would it KILL them to just acknowledge what they did was wrong and say “I’m sorry”?!
For years, Warner Brothers has had many of their cartoons prefaced with this screen:
In case you can’t read that, it says
“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 the following does not represent the Warner Bros.’ view of today’s society, the cartoons are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.”
Bam. And just like that, Warner Brothers owns up to making racist cartoons and allows us to see them. I don’t like watching movies where jokes hinge on how wacky minorities are, but they often contain great art or commentary and illuminate just how far we’ve come since then. And now they’ve set a precedent to warn viewers that what they’re about watch may contain aspects of prejudice that are uncomfortable to watch. It’s not much, but it’s a first step.
And by the way, Randall, I haven’t forgotten that you still owe me for using up my detergent.
2. Bonus Features
I am a colossal nerd. On some of my Disney DVDs, I’d watch the making of documentaries more than I’d watch the actual movies, mostly because I find those stories more fascinating. Like finding out Bela Lugosi was the original model for Fantasia‘s Chernabog, or how Jeffrey Katzenberg REALLY thought “Part of Your World” deserved to be axed from The Little Mermaid, or that John Lennon hated the idea of being in a Disney film. On top of that, Hulu and Netflix have a lot of great stuff, but bonus features are scant beyond a few trailers here or there. But Disney+ has wisely include a multitude of behind-the-scenes features to allow fans to dive deep into their favorite movies.
Disney has no better means of defending itself than the bonus feature. A forty-to-hour-long video discussing race in cinema and bringing aboard noted historians would show a willingness to be adults and talk about it. Not even just film historians, but respected names in academia in civil rights to be able to really delve deep into this subject.
What’s more, the bonus features are already easily accessible. When you access a movie title on the service, you barely have to scroll down to to see what other offerings are available. Those who aren’t necessarily into these gems (Can’t imagine who wouldn’t be) can still get their eye caught on something that seems interesting. Back in the days of DVD and even Blu-ray, having to make the effort to locate and select the bonus features menu meant you were already searching for them. When it’s literally right there, so many more eyes are drawn to it and will select it.
3. The Highly Controllable Circumstance
This is probably the most likely reason Disney may release the 1946 film is because for the first time, it will be mostly in their control. As I mentioned before, Disney is fiercely, litigiously defensive of their image. Putting a physical copy of Song of the South on store shelves essentially relinquishes control entirely to the consumer. With the streaming service, they can release the movie on a platform dominated largely by ardent Disney fans, a demographic most open to and appreciative of this movie’s presence.
Second, unlike physical copies, they cannot distribute the film to parts unknown. A streamed movie, unless hacked and downloaded, can’t go anywhere except the approved platforms. And if, for whatever reason, they decide they don’t want it up anymore, it can disappear from the software in mere hours. That’s something that’s highly appealing to a company worried they may have take swift and decisive action the moment a derisive hashtag starts trending.
Releasing a DVD at Wal-Mart was always going to be touch and go, because it ran the risk of being accessed by Joe Public, who don’t know or care about the film’s troubled history, and spread negativity about it. Putting it in theaters for a limited-time run most likely wouldn’t generate enough revenue to validate the costs, particularly in competition with streaming these days. Airing it on TV wouldn’t have the reach to the most potential fans as it might have had a decade ago. Even releasing it on Netflix might mean too much exposure, and Disney might have been hamstrung by contractual demands from Netflix. For a while, I suggested Disney sell copies in Splash Mountain gift shops only, where fans and newcomers are primed to see more, but again, physical copies mean they can be scattered to the four winds and can generate negativity.
No, putting it on Disney+ is best. As long as they can put it in a format dominated by the most understanding of audiences and can take it away the second they do choose, it’s the best venue to put it out on.
4. They…(sigh!) Will make a Ton of Money.
Releasing Song of the South is not, and shouldn’t be, about making money. Although we are living in a capitalist society, and that is Disney’s ultimate goal. What’s interesting is while a lot of people complain Disney is too money-hungry, the company could make serious money releasing it, but decidedly choose not to. For moral reasons? No, not exactly, but at least it’s not about money.
Still, if “You can make lots of money!” is what causes Disney relent, then who am I to hold back?
Seriously think about this: just how many more subscribers could Disney wrangle up if they put it on? A lot more? No, but enough to make them really rethink things. Heck, it might re-ignite interest in Splash Mountain for guests and spawn further investment in merchandise. Like I said before, maybe we’ll see a series of shorts based on the adventures of Br’er Rabbit as he continued to outwit Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear, and that could renew interest in the characters. And at last, Disney won’t have to sweat every time they acknowledge Song of the South in pamphlets and books that talk about Splash Mountain and “Zip-a-dee-dah”.
And I think that’d be mighty satisfact’ll.