Sunday, May 25, 2008

Racism, Commercialism, and Song of the South

A couple years ago, I sat up in the nosebleed seats of the Anaheim Convention Center during the Disney shareholder meeting and heard Disney CEO Robert Iger answer a question about when Song of the South might be coming back.

Mr. Iger said that he had looked at the film, and the company had looked at the idea of re-releasing the SOTS, but after due consideration the answer was "sorry, no." The picture wouldn't be coming out anytime soon on DVD or any other format. It was just too sensitive.

I sat there and thought, "Okay, I can understand that. The picture isn't nearly as racist as Gone With the Wind, but this is Disney, after all. What family-type conglomerate wants grief releasing old product that rubs some people the wrong way, that opens old sores? Probably a safe decision."

That was in 2006. Then we moved on to other stockholder meetings ...

And Mr. Iger's thinking changed somewhat:

... At the annual shareholders meeting in March 2007, Iger announced that the company was reconsidering the decision, and had decided to look into the possibility of releasing the film ...

But that stockholder announcement quickly got reversed:

In May 2007, it was again reported that the Disney company had chosen not to release the film...

So here we are in 2008, and the Mouse House has reverted to the more cautious status quo:

..."[I]n Albuquerque today, March 6, 2008. A shareholder got up during the Question and Answer segment to ask Robert Iger, the CEO of Disney, 'Before the end of my lifetime will I ever see 'Song of the South' released to home video?' To which Mr. Iger replied the now 'standard' reply: They discuss the possibility regularly, there are certain issues of 'sensitivity' surround this movie and the long ago past era it was made in, times are different now, no immediate plans to release it, but they do regularly revisit it, etc."

Now, I totally get behind Robert Iger's thinking. Disney doesn't need to gin up controversy by putting SOTS out on the market again. Sure, it's got some terrific animation in it, and yes, it's not as over-the-top with its stereotypes as the Selznick-MGM Civil War epic, but there would be incoming flack if the feature was re-marketed, and the cost-benefit for Disney most likely isn't worth it.

All that I totally understand. What I don't understand is this ...

Generous portions of Song of the South are all over YouTube, and being watched. And one thing I know is, if Disney -- the copyright holder -- didn't want them them there, they wouldn't be.

So the only thing I can conclude is, the House of Mouse has mixed emotions about its sixty-two-year-old animation/live-action chestnut. Not ready to embrace it, but not willing to reject it totally, either. (And anyone who wants to own a copy, well ... that can be arranged.)

My take? Some of South is pretty edgy by today's standards (and a lot of blacks had problems with it right from the get-go), but if you want a dose of repugnant, consider what the Warners' animation crew was doing around the same time:

... [Eleven racially offensive Warners Cartoons], known as the “Censored 11,” have been unavailable to the public for 40 years. Postings no longer appear if YouTube is searched for “Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs,” a parody of “Snow White” and the most famous of the cartoons. But a search for “Coal Black” does find the cartoon.

These cartoons were controversial when first released; the N.A.A.C.P. unsuccessfully protested “Coal Black” before it was shown in 1943. Richard McIntire, the director of communications for the N.A.A.C.P., wrote in an e-mail message that “the cartoons are despicable. We encourage the films’ owners to maintain them as they are — that is, locked away in their vaults.” ...

The problem for any culture, and especially a diverse civilization like ours, is the standards that one generation finds acceptable is often despised and repudiated (justifiably) in the next. Looking back, I'm amazed that anyone could not have found various stereotypes in silent comedies and animated cartoons offensive.

Yet there they are, on full view on the ubiquitous internet, for everybody to clench their jaws at.


Anonymous said...

Folks interested in a legitimate Disney release can also purchase the 1985 Japanese laserdisc release. Once in a while it pops up on eBay.

Floyd Norman said...

Perhaps Bob Iger is right after all. It seems some things never change. Cartoons still offend people, and cops still point their guns at me -- even in my own driveway.

We all want change, but clearly it hasn't happened yet.

Anonymous said...

Song of the South was FULLY restored and released in Europe (in particular, France) and even sold at Paris Disneyland on DVD. It's a BEAUTIFUL print, with no subtitles like that pesky Japanese ld print (which wasn't very good to begin with). It flew threw the animation community a few years back, and if you had a region free dvd player, you hit the jackpot.

Song of the South is not a particularly GOOD film, although it does have some of the best, if not THE best, animation from Disney ever.

Anonymous said...

Song of the South is not a particularly GOOD film

Yes, is it possible that this film can never live up to the legend that has sprung up in its absence?

I know when I finally saw "Coal Black" my reaction was "that's what all the fuss is about?"

I've found that to be true of a number of classic films the I read about in film history classes but couldn't actually see at the time.

Anonymous said...

"Song of the South is not a particularly GOOD film, although it does have some of the best, if not THE best, animation from Disney ever."

Someone has been looking thru the rosey lens of memory here. SOTS has some good animation that was reused over and over and over again to save the budget. It's an okay film with some damn good animation, but THE best? Really?

Anonymous said...

Note: it says "SOME of the best."

And yes. Easily.

Anonymous said...

And someone hasn't seen the film lately, as little, if any, of the animation in Song of the South is re-used--at least in the film. And when it is (which is only once or twice) it's used for comedic effect--and is VERY funny.

Anonymous said...

BTW - Those "Paris Disneyland" (?) discs are the same old fakes with a fake sticker added to the front. Are spammers OK on this blog now?

Anonymous said...

Actually, the Paris Disneyland discs are official Disney releases. You could buy them ONLY at the park. The film was remastered in Burbank.

There ARE some Chinese dvd's or vdiscs out there that are just the Japanese LD print. Not very good.

Anonymous said...

I got a dvd, on-line for just $12.00, including shipping. Very, very good quality and watching it, again, brought back some wonderful memories! If you want to know where I got it, email me at

Anonymous said...

Got one of those from a few months ago and it's the same burned DVD that's been around since 2000. Decent quality from a Chinese rental-only laserdisc with no subtitles, but you can find it cheaper elsewhere.

The movie was broadcast on British TV last year uncut with no commercial interruptions or on-screen logos. If you're in the US and you can play PAL DVDs, look for this download. It has definitely been remastered and is a huge improvement over the next best bootleg.

Site Meter