Brace Yourself. It’s “Song of the South”

This ain't exactly going to be W.E.B. DuBois.

This ain’t exactly going to be W.E.B. DuBois.

One of the most inflammatory movie titles one can utter is Song of the South (1946). Am I racist for liking this movie? Some people might think so. I concede that Song of the South is not Roots (1977) nor is it Amistad (1997), but it’s sensibilities are far less prejudiced than say Birth of a Nation (1915). It’s probably more artistically comparable to Birth of a Nation in that it was a surprising technical achievement, but I submit that Song of the South is not quite as racially insensitive as is commonly perceived (or at least, it doesn’t mean to be), rather it is merely uninformed and maybe not that bad of a movie.

Don't do the review, man. It's not worth it.

Don’t do the review, man. It’s not worth it.

It’s been banned in its entirety for years and Disney still hasn’t released it. Frederick Douglass would undoubtedly be appalled by Disney’s apparent lack of understanding of the plight of the American slave showcased in this film. In fact, it is in this department that the film gets the most flak, and perhaps deservedly so.

It depicts the jolly slave affably singing and toiling in the fields for his masseh. No one is discontent with the fact that they are living in human bondage. Naturally, the slave owners themselves are kind-hearted and good people too. Kindly old Uncle Remus is only too happy to oblige his masseh in any task and there are really no consequences for disobedience. I concede all of these things, but I honestly was not expecting a serious look into the harsh realities of this dark hour in American history. I watched it for the cartoons. This is a family Disney film from the 1940’s. Maybe they were ignorant and oblivious to what actually went on, but even had they known and still chosen to water it down it would still be the Disney way. In a children’s fantasy film from the Walt Disney studios you don’t show the bloody stripes on the backs of your jovial protagonists. You have to wait until the 80’s for that. vewy, vewy quiet. I'm hunting wabbits.

Shh…be vewy, vewy quiet. I’m hunting wabbits.

Song of the South is not attempting to be Johnny Tremain (1957) or Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955), which may take some liberties but are still trying to represent an historical time. Song of the South was an attempt to bottle some of the magic of Uncle Remus’s tales of Br’er Rabbit and I’d say they succeeded in doing that much. In fact the only real reason to watch Song of the South is for the animated segments and for James Baskett’s charismatic performance as Uncle Remus.

Well, this is a fin how do you do.

Well, this is a fine how do you do.

Some might say that Baskett was playing a stereotype just like Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind (1939), but they still both crafted lovable, endearing characters that outshone the rest of the respective films they were in. Maybe they didn’t get the complex juicy roles because the prejudices of the times would not give them much more, but they did what they could with the material given to them. It’s a damn shame McDaniel really only ever got to play slaves or maids, but don’t sell her talent short. I think she deserved that Oscar. Baskett also did receive an honorary Academy Award for his performance in Song of the South and Walt Disney himself fought very hard to get him nominated. Ironically (and sadly), Baskett was unable to attend the premiere of his film in Atlanta because of the segregation laws at the time. Let’s not forget how hard it was for ethnic actors back then.

The film itself is your typical uber-saccharine tale of a young boy who learns life lessons. The child performances are nothing to write home about and much of the live-action stuff gets boring whenever Uncle Remus isn’t around, but be patient.

Tell us the story of Django again!

Tell us the story of Django again!

Poor little Johnny (Bobby Driscoll) is hoodwinked into thinking his little trip to his grandmother’s plantation is a delightful vacation…until he learns that his parents are separating (still not too sure why, but I suppose that’s not important).  This actually might have fed the controversy too. If a kid’s movie is edgy enough to attack the stigma of parental separation on children, might it at least have the guts to depict racism and slavery with a little more accuracy? Instead there is no racism, only bullies, and slavery is just a footnote because the story happens to take place in Georgia in the 19th century. Ah, well.

Back to Johnny. Fortunately for Johnny he makes friends with wise, old Uncle Remus who “edutains” with stories of Br’er Rabbit and how he outsmarts Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear. Johnny’s mother disapproves of the stories because she feels it has a negative impact on her son and she forbids Uncle Remus from telling him any more. Throughout the movie Johnny finds a puppy, makes friends with a girl, deals with bullies, wrestles with anxiety over his parents, almost gets killed by a bull, and always tries to sneak back to his friend Uncle Remus to hear more. The story is sweet and innocent enough and if it didn’t feature slaves as content watered-down Stepin Fetchits it would probably be another much celebrated film in the Disney canon. Alas, it suffers from controversy…which I think actually makes it much more interesting and more important.

What now?

What now?

The scenes that combine live-action with animation are wonderful. Uncle Remus sings as he strolls down a dirt road and all of the adorable anthropomorphic animals sing along. It has been parodied much, but these sequences are really well done and they were huge technological breakthroughs at the time and although Song of the South might not be Mary Poppins (1964), I’d say it’s a far more stimulating accomplishment than Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971). The three main animated segments featuring Br’er Rabbit are magical and as finely drawn as anything the Disney studios ever produced. They brim with peril, humor, and wisdom and each tale delivers another important lesson for Johnny (and us all), but they are told with such playfulness and gusto that they are a delight to hear again and again. Br’er Fox, Br’er Bear, and Br’er Rabbit are charming characters and the film develops them quite well. Even if you’ve never seen the movie, you are probably already familiar with them from the Splash Mountain log-floom ride at Disney theme parks. And almost everyone has heard the songs “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” and “How Do You Do?”

So what exactly do we have here? A great technological accomplishment, a fine story, some very enjoyable performances, great iconic songs, and splendid animation thrust amidst some blindly optimistic time capsule with extreme naiveté regarding race relations and overwrought with classic Disney sentimentality. All in all, I’d say it’s nothing most people wouldn’t be able to handle with some maturity. Song of the South is guilty of depicting the happy black man who is perfectly content with his subservient status beneath whitey’s thumb. It does show a clean and delusionally optimistic version of life on the southern plantations. It is a product of its times. It was also a huge passion project for Mr. Disney. And you know what? I liked the movie. I found myself being captivated by Uncle Remus’s enchanting yarns and the beautiful animation. I also loved Dumbo (1941) too. People always told me as a kid that the crows were racist. They may portray stereotypical black speech and characteristics, but they’re really the only decent folk in the movie apart from Dumbo’s mom and Timothy Mouse.

Over there! Justin Bieber is doing something!

Over there! Something controversial!

I remember reading the stories of Br’er Rabbit and his adventures when I was a little kid. I enjoyed the stories then and I enjoyed them being retold in the movie. He was way more interesting than Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit to me. He was smart and savvy, and although his wise-alec attitude got him into trouble, he always could think up a way out. The film stays true to the original characters and its not nearly as racist as the thousand other racially insensitive cartoons and movies from that era and earlier (and I’d still advocate their preservation too). So will watching Song of the South today promote racism? I’d say no. If anything it can give us an insightful glimpse into American history. Not the sad history of American slavery in the 1800’s, but the unfortunate history of 1940’s Hollywood. It’s a pretty good film on its own, but I’d say the controversy and historical context actually enhances it and provides more to discuss. Check it out if you can find it.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” February 15, 2011.

My Country White or Wong

Anna May Wong

Anna May Wong

221246375_9e48852774The American film industry has had a long and illustrious span with fantastic films and innovations for more than a century. A great many good things have come from American film, but let us not forget some of the darker aspects. Throughout history non-white actors have had a hard time in American movies (as well as being the victims of prejudice outside the cinema). Things have gotten a lot better, but take a moment and appreciate how far we’ve come.

Chinese American actress, Anna May Wong, was one such talented figure whose road to success was blocked by the color of her skin. Wong was born in 1905 Los Angeles. She pursued acting in the silent era and became the first Asian American international movie star, but she had a tough time keeping her spot in the limelight. In a time when many actors of European descent would put on makeup to play other races and anti-miscegenation laws prevented interracial scenes of sensuality (including kissing) and not many ethnic leading players, the studios generally did not always know what to do with Wong and she was, more often than not, cast as exotic background or as more stereotypical characters.

Thief of Bagdad

Thief of Bagdad (1924)

I first saw Anna May Wong in Raoul Walsh’s silent classic, The Thief of Baghdad (1924), starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. For all Baghdad’s special effects, impressive set design, and Fairbanks’ charismatic charm and stunts, it was Anna May Wong who (in my humble opinion) stole the show. She played a shifty Mongol slave and although the role was not particularly big or racially positive, her performance left an impression on me.

wong glam

Recently I went to Hollywood’s Silent Theater for a viewing of The Toll of the Sea (1922), which was Wong’s first starring role and also one of the first films to be shot with a very early Technicolor process (so, yes, in IN LIVING COLOR). Alas, the final reel was lost to history, but the impact of the story and Wong’s wonderful performance made it well worth the price of admission.

Loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera, “Madame Butterfly” (which was turned into a pretty good operatic film in 1995), Anna May Wong plays a young Chinese girl, Lotus Flower, who finds a stranded American on the shore. They fall in love and are married, but the man, pressured by his other American friends and concerned with his public image, returns to his homeland without his bride. Promised he would return to her, Lotus Flower waits everyday for her beloved husband. Her Chinese neighbors chide her for her silly devotion because they believe she was just an exotic fling for the American. Years pass and Lotus Flower raises her son (who her husband doesn’t even know he has) and she writes letters to herself from him in broken English that tell of his love for her and his son.

Toll of the Sea (1922)

Toll of the Sea (1922)

SPOILER ALERT: The heart-breaking final act has the American at last returning to China. Lotus Flower hears of his return and puts on her best clothes and makes her son ready for his father’s arrival, but is emotionally distraught to discover he has married an American girl and forgotten about her and has only returned at the behest of his new wife to explain the situation. Lotus Flower tries to keep her composure, but soon the American woman discovers the truth and Lotus Flower gives her son to the new woman. The scene where Lotus Flower tries to tell her son that it was all fairy stories when she said she was his mother and that she was just a silly Chinese nurse is truly gut wrenching. Lotus Flower’s eyes are filled with tears and her young son does not wish to leave his mother and clings to her, kissing her and trying to dry her tears. Eventually the American wife takes the son and they return to America with Lotus Flower’s husband. Having spent her whole life waiting for her beloved’s return and removing herself from all other alliances and her son now gone she throws herself into the ocean, thus paying the toll of the sea. This film is very sentimental but it’s quite good and Wong gives a wonderful leading performance.

Piccadilly (1929)

Piccadilly (1929)

Anna May Wong was a glamour girl in her time and a very fine actress, but the Hollywood system continued to refuse her roles (Asian leads were never terribly common). The last straw arrived when she was refused the role of O-lan for the film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth (1937). This was a role Wong had desired for a long time, but it was cast to the American actress, Luise Rainer (who won the Academy Award for her role). Wong eventually relocated to Europe where ethnic performers were met with somewhat less troubles. She eventually returned to Hollywood but remained chiefly a side character.

Piccadilly (1929)

Piccadilly (1929)

She played a slightly more positive double-agent character in the British musical Chu Chin Chow (1934), but her role isn’t big enough. She starred in the stylish E. A. Dupont film, Piccadilly (1929); did radio; and had a supporting role in the classic Marlene Dietrich film, Shanghai Express (1932). She starred in the wartime dramas Lady From Chungking and Bombs Over Burma (both 1942) and even became the first Asian American with her own detective TV show in 1951, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong (sadly, nothing exists of the show today). Later in life she sold her costumes and donated the money to Chinese aid for refugees. She died of a heart attack at age 56 in 1961. She never married.

Shanghai Express (1932)

Shanghai Express (1932)

Like Hattie McDaniel, who became the first African American to win an Oscar (as well as stealing every scene in Gone With the Wind, 1939), much of Anna May Wong’s success is marred by people who discount her and her work for portraying more racially stereotypical characters. I ask these attackers to consider the times in which these actors lived. It may not have been fair then, why should we keep it unfair now? Few can deny their talent or the obstacles that faced them. Let us celebrate them rather than belittle their legacies. Racial equality may elude us for another century, but let us not forget what steps have already been conquered or the brave, stubborn people who conquered them.


Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” August 27, 2009