We are in a polarizing time: Old wounds from the past — race, politics, gender equality, sexism and poverty — have all bubbled to the surface. From the halls of our government to our problematic entertainment industry, history is literally repeating itself because we’ve ignored what’s been broken In our country for so long.
And by refusing to address its own racist legacy (which extended well beyond the 1940s), Disney is only adding to the problem.
Take the forthcoming release of their family-friendly streaming platform, Disney+, set to make its long-awaited debut on November 12. It plans to usher in new products like the live-action remake of “Lady and the Tramp” while unlocking the company’s coveted vault, making more than 500 beloved films like “101 Dalmatians” and “Bambi” (as well as over 7,500 TV episodes) available on demand to the masses.
However, the studio is not making every movie from their vault accessible to Disney+ subscribers. In keeping with company policy dating to 2011, the studio’s controversial 1946 film “Song of the South” will not have a home on the platform. And, a scene from the 1941 animated classic, “Dumbo,” featuring a crow named Jim Crow, will be deleted from the streaming version of the film.
Disney CEO Bob Iger had explained back then that he felt allowing those movies to be seen “wouldn't necessarily sit right or feel right to a number of people today" and that "it wouldn't be in the best interest of our shareholders to bring it back, even though there would be some financial gain.”
Both “Song of the South” and “Dumbo” are disturbing to watch — as are many films, TV shows, and pop culture references born in the 20th century and beyond, especially by Disney. However, by overlooking these types of racist and problematic projects from a past time, Disney is not doing themselves or the public any favors.
“Song of the South,” for example, premiered just after World War II when African American soldiers were returning home after fighting for the freedoms of all Americans only to face humiliating Jim Crow laws, segregation and lynchings. Instead of reflecting on the changing state of the nation, the studios used the post-war era to return to the model that made “Gone With the Wind” a massive success in 1939.
In “Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film,” film scholar Ed Guerrero writes of those years that, “Hollywood seemed undecided about how to interpret the Old South experience in the plantation genre, which was making a limited by feeble comeback.” Films like “Song of the South,” then, depicted supposedly “idyllic” Antebellum and Reconstruction periods in which African Americans were docile, subservient, only present to serve the whims of white people and not dissatisfied with their abhorrent circumstances.
This degrading trope was born in the years after the Civil War. America refused to come to terms with its identity without slavery as a foundation and so a sanitized version of slavery was constructed to absolve the South and the country of guilt, while attempting to trap African-Americans in subservient and demeaning positions. Today, it has seeped into our public school systems with history books depicting images of “happy” slaves, while erasing the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade and the Peculiar Institution.
That depiction was also controversial at the time: When “Song of the South” was released in 1946, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People called for an open protest and boycott, galvanized in a manner unseen since the debut of D.W. Griffith's 1915 love letter to the Ku Klux Klan, ”The Birth of A Nation.” The NAACP argued that “Song of the South” helped “to perpetuate a dangerously glorified picture of slavery" and gave “the impression of an idyllic master-slave relationship which is a distortion of the facts.”
In “Song of the South,” Uncle Remus (James Baskett) is a former slave still living on a plantation who befriends a little white boy, Johnny (Bobby Driscoll), who is struggling with his parents' separation. Uncle Remus delights Johnny with African folk tales about Br'er Rabbit and the Tar-Baby and, as he speaks, the characters magically come to life. However, by the end of the film, Johnny has taken Uncle Remus’ stories and their magic for himself... and Uncle Remus remains on the plantation. (The film was adapted from Joel Chandler Harris' “Uncle Remus Stories” which he stole from the enslaved people on his family’s plantation.)
With “Song of the South” Disney also presented one of the earliest film versions of the "Magical Negro" character, Uncle Remus.Cinema has an extensive history of "Magical Negros," characters born out of a white writer or filmmaker's sheer ignorance about the African American experience and characterized as patient, wise, jovial and usually with some sort of magical power. But the "Magical Negro’s" ultimate purpose is to help the white protagonist overcome some significant issue. In addition to Uncle Remus, Disney also had a "Mammy," Academy Award winner Hattie McDaniel’s Aunt Tempy, as the jovial, overweight, sexless, docile Black female servant who caters to white people hand and foot.
Obviously, children need to be shielded from seeing the overtly racist material and the ideology behind “Song of the South,” and the now-deleted Jim Crow minstrel scene from “Dumbo” without context for why it is, and was, wrong. However, in limiting the general public’s access to them, Disney is taking the easy way out. Ignoring past sins does not absolve the company of them. If Disney is going to use Disney+ as a way to celebrate the magic of the studio and its legacy, they ought to let the light in even in the darkest corners.
A bolder framing for films like “Song of the South” and the Jim Crow scene in “Dumbo” — as well as the other racist parodies that abound in Disney works — would be to present them on the Disney+ platform under a parental lock with a disclaimer. Educational commentary from historians, film scholars and those who have written extensively on the material could also be included in pop-up notes, commentary tracks or as separate mini-docs to watch before and/or after the movies.
Unpacking how, why and when these projects were made would provide context for newcomers and those who haven’t seen these films in decades. It would offer an opportunity for growth, conversation and healing. But, by sweeping these issues under the rug, Disney suggests they would rather shut the door on their past atrocities than take the time and space to learn, grow and evolve from them. Sometimes doing what’s best for the generations that follow us means we must get uncomfortable, and expose our past faults and failures to them for us all to evolve.