As The Walt Disney Company get ready to launch their own streaming service, Disney+, questions have lingered over just how much of their illustrious back-catalogue will end up on the platform. Over the course of 96 years, Uncle Walt’s House of Mouse has become arguably the most powerful multimedia conglomerate on the planet, and the only major Hollywood studio that is still primarily branded based on its perceived morals. They’re also the media monopoly with the tightest grip on their public image, and they’ve worked very hard to ensure that they never loosen their hold on that happily-ever-after dream palace façade, for better or worse. That has meant rejigging the course of history on more than one occasion. But now, they have a chance to right a few wrongs. The most recent Disney+ announcement revealed, much to the delight of fans, that the company would be ending their Vault program.
Said vault has been a defining part of company policy for many decades. Previously, studio executives believed that readily available home releases would weaken the brand, preferring regular theatrical re-releases. When the home market became impossible to ignore, they decided to follow a similar pattern and release a film every ten years before putting in ‘back into the Disney vault’. That established window of limited availability made for very quick sales and has done wonders for helping them to control their product. Now, it’s gone, and Disney CEO Bob Iger has said that the entire vault will be available to view on Disney+. Fans are, predictably, elated, although questions remain over what the ‘entire vault’ means in this context. Will it just be those key animated movies or will they include those nostalgia favourite Disney Channel films too? What about the flops, like Condorman and those Ewoks movies? And what about the elephant in the room? No, not Dumbo.
In 1946, The Walt Disney Company released Song of the South, a live-action/animated musical based on the Uncle Remus stories. The film was something of a pet project for Disney. He had wanted to make a film based on the Uncle Remus stories for many years, but hadn’t been able to get the rights to them until 1944. Joel Chandler Harris, the credited writer of the Remus stories, was a journalist and folklorist who has served as an apprentice at the Turnwold Plantation in Eatonton, Georgia, as a teenager. During that time, he learned many of the folk songs and stories told by slaves imprisoned there. He later wrote them down in a collection titled Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, which was published in 1880. Harris’s legacy remains a difficult topic to discuss in literary terms. Some consider him one of the most necessary forces behind the preservation and literary development of African American folk tales, although the obvious topics of cultural appropriation cannot be ignored, especially since he made money off those stories where the original storytellers did not. Harris’s versions of these stories and the ways they were consumed by white audiences heavily rewrote this cultural narrative long before Walt Disney entered the scene, but it’s safe to say he didn’t exactly help.
Disney was aware that making Song of the South could be a perilous task. Disney publicist Vern Caldwell wrote, ‘the negro situation is a dangerous one […] Between the negro haters and the negro lovers there are many chances to run afoul of situations that run the gamut all the way from the nasty to the controversial.’ According to Neal Gabler’s biography, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, Walt instructed his publicity team to meet with the sales managers behind Twentieth Century-Fox’s all black film Stormy Weather to see how they sold the film to nationwide audiences. Disney also hired screenwriter Maurice Rapf to get a screenplay off the ground based on a treatment written by Dalton Reymond. Rapf was confused by this choice because he was a self-described outspoken left-winger, as well as Jewish, and he thought the material would be too Uncle Tomish. Disney reportedly said, ‘That’s exactly why I want you to work on it,” Walt told him, “because I know that you don’t think I should make the movie. You’re against Uncle Tomism, and you’re a radical.’
When the film premiered at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, actor James Baskett, who played Uncle Remus, couldn’t attend because the city was segregated. Baskett had previously appeared in a Disney film, Dumbo, as a voice of one of the jive-talking crows. He did not receive credit for it. With Song of the South, he faced many of the same criticisms co-star Hattie McDaniel had when she starred in Gone With the Wind: Was it better to take these high-profile available roles for black actors, even when they were so demeaning and based on racist stereotypes, or risk losing work to white people in blackface? Some critics loved the performance, and he became the first African American man to win an Academy Award, after Disney himself campaigned for him to receive an honorary Oscar. The film itself wasn’t a critical darling. Reviews were mixed and audiences didn’t turn out for it, meaning it lost money at the box office. All the conversations we have about the film now happened at the time, with the NAACP condemning the film and some black critics calling it propaganda for white supremacy.
Song of the South has never received a complete home release in the USA. In 2017, Whoopi Goldberg, after being inaugurated as a Disney Legend, said that she felt it was time for the company to re-release Song of the South so ‘we can talk about what it was and where it came from and why it came out.’ Bob Iger, however, has said on many occasions that probably won’t happen since the film is ‘fairly offensive’. There are plenty of people in favour of keeping the film in the vault. Even Roger Ebert said it would be a smart idea to make sure it didn’t inadvertently become a favourite with a new generation of young kids, although he supported making it available for academic purposes.
The problem with Disney’s attempts to sweep the film under the rug is that they’ve never fully committed to it. You can still listen to ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah’ on their YouTube channels, albeit not in the context of the movie. You can go to their theme parks and ride Splash Mountain, which is chock full of characters from the film. Disney’s claims of wanting to avoid the ethical issues of such antiquated content being a for-sale commodity also ring hollow given their 2004 release of their World War 2 propaganda films. Walt Disney on the Front Lines, a very pretty tin edition of these films, includes films featuring the indoctrination of young German children into the Hitler Youth, the seven dwarfs teaching Canadians about the joys of war bonds, and, of course, Der Fuehrer’s Face. Ever heard Donald Duck say ‘Heil Hitler’? It is a trip. And it won an Oscar.
The Disney war propaganda collection came with extensive extra features that detailed the behind-the-scenes decisions and the historical context. Warner Bros. have their infamous Censored Eleven, a collection of Looney Tunes pulled from syndication due to their racism. However, Warner Bros. have also not shied away from contextualizing these films in a historical and academic manner. In 2010, they screened the Censored Eleven and had legendary film historian Donald Bogle host the event. If you watch their old cartoons on T.V. or DVD now, you’ve probably seen their disclaimer that says ‘These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today […] these cartoons are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.’
This is not as simple an issue as ‘artistic freedom versus censorship’, as it is so often categorized. In an ideal world, Disney would make Song of the South available for viewing and they would do so with a proper historical and cultural conversation that does not shy away from the tangle of questions they’ve spent so long overlooking. But we know how this would unfold in 2019. The film would become the bastion of artistic glory for white supremacists, the usual talking heads on Fox News would cry liberal conspiracy at its absence from our screens, and every weirdo in my Twitter mentions would accuse me of trying to ruin their childhood. As evidenced by their theme park delights happy singing kids on Playhouse Disney, the studio has already done enough to strip Song of the South of its safest commodities as to assure any unbroken conversations about the film can never truly happen. They’ve Disneyfied a Disney movie.
What do you think? Should Disney release Song of the South or keep it in the vault?