1946, 94 mins., Rated G
Aaaaaaand we’re back! No excuses about why this took so long – I just suck. But I did some homework on this one, and I’m really excited to talk about it!
So I’m finally ready to tackle Disney’s Secret Taboo Shame. I think it’s really hilarious how hard Disney has tried to pretend that this film never happened. It’s pretty common knowledge that Walt Disney was a bigot, but so were most of his contemporaries, right? All the other films that deal with (read: perpetuate) racial stereotypes are easily accessible, and even seen as quaint in their Silly, Ignorant White People neatness. But because of the subject matter this particular “racist” picture is suuuuper not kosher. And I’ll probably get hate mail for saying this, but I’m not really even convinced that the film, or the intentions of the folks who made it, is racist. Just hear me out.
First of all, let me make a note of how hard it is to get your hands on this thing. It was never released in its entirety on VHS or DVD, and it’s not available to stream on any of the legit sites (Netflix, Hulu, etc.). Really the only plausible way to get your hands on a bona fide copy is a European PAL, which then requires the proper equipment, or an expensive DVD or digital transfer. The next option would be one of the numerous bootleg DVDs. These are mostly crappy DIY transfers from the PAL or the single time the film was broadcast on television, and only available from very shady-looking online retailers. So really, my only option was to procure it by other means. I plead the Fifth. But really, if they don’t want people going behind their backs, they should just make the damn thing available. It’s an historical document and should be treated as such. This smells a little like Germany insisting the Holocaust never happened, or American schools teaching our children that the Pilgrims and Indians were BFFs. Except that this movie isn’t anything to be ashamed of, so Disney are just making fools of themselves and wasting everyone’s time. Okay, end of rant.
I will now attempt to defend this film in as tactful, respectful, and accurate a manner as possible. Bear with me, please.
Have you ever read the Uncle Remus stories? No? I didn’t think so. I have, and the folks who made this film certainly did. Before I started researching for this post, I’d only ever heard the name Uncle Remus in association with this film, and had never heard any of the tales. If you didn’t know, it is a collection of folk tales influenced by the African-American and Native American aural traditions, and published by a white man named Joel Chandler Harris during the Reconstruction era (just after the Civil War, when the South was tore to shit and they had to rebuild everything). Mr. Harris was a journalist, novelist, and a champion of reconciliation (both racial, and between the North and South). Little Johnny’s father seems to be modeled after Harris – the film opens with a discussion between the grown-ups about folks not liking what Daddy has to say in his newspaper, and he leaves Johnny and Sally at the plantation to get back to Atlanta to keep working.
Uncle Remus spins tales of Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox and all their adventures and misadventures. There are cautionary tales and creation mythologies. Br’er Rabbit is characterized almost as an Arlecchino (from the commedia dell’arte tradition), or a Jim Crow (from the minstrel tradition). Much like Tom Sawyer or Tyrion Lannister, Br’er Rabbit uses his wits and cunning to avoid work, often creating an even bigger mess for himself in the process.
I found the film charming, particularly the framing story of Little Johnny and his family. I don’t understand why it’s seen as racist. Does it show liberated slaves still living and working at the plantation? Yes. Is that what they did in real life? Yes, a lot of them. Is there a tar baby in one of the Br’er Rabbit tales? Yes. Did Walt Disney make up the tar baby story because he hated black people? No. It was already part of the Uncle Remus tradition. If anything, pretending that these aspects of history never existed and disparaging anyone who depicts them in popular culture is more harmful than people seem to think this movie is. Could the animation sequences have been handled better? Yes. Could we have done without the use of dialect? Probably. As we discussed with Snow White, Saludos Amigos, and The Three Caballeros, the Disneyfication of cultural mythology is not always helpful, but does at least bring exposure. What about Hercules – is that disrespectful of the mythological tradition of Ancient Greece? Or is The Hunchback of Notre Dame racist against the Romani? Yes and yes. I say just take it at face value. If you don’t like it, that’s your personal prerogative – but I don’t understand the crusade against this film in particular.
On a related note, this film happens to be very finely acted and sung by the very talented James Baskett and Hattie McDaniel (who you may know as Mammy from Gone with the Wind). And speaking of singing, I think this film marks the beginning of the Disney tradition of coining words for catchy tunes. “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” is one of the best-known and best-loved Disney songs ever, though many people couldn’t tell you what film it’s from. They also went to the next level with the combination of animation and live actors (which will obviously come in handy down the road for Mary Poppins).
My point here is not to offend anyone, just to offer my own thoughts about the films I watch in the most respectful way possible. If you read something you don’t like and have an informed, thoughtful response, please feel free to leave it in the comments below and I will respond in turn. I am not, however, interested in hate speech. Comments that are rude, hateful, or unsubstantiated will be screened out. This is a forum for discussion, not a platform for hate.
In other news…stay tuned for Make Mine Music!