As a child of age six or seven, I remember watching the Disney classic Song of the South and thinking how wonderful it must be to live in Uncle Remus’ fantasy world; however, now after taking a second look at this film, twelve years later, I realize that if I were a part of that world, I would be a slave. Slavery is romanticized so much through this children’s film that it’s easy for young black children to innocently long to unknowingly become an American slave.
The Walt Disney animated Song of the South is much more than just an entertaining fairy tale, it has both social and political significance, serving as a means to mold innocent children’s minds by teaching white superiority and black inferiority, thus coveting very racist ideals; yet, also in underlying message, it allows a means of outlet for the millions that were oppressed in slavery. The ever popular Walt Disney Song of the South is based on Joel Chandler Harris’ book of stories entitled Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings.
Joel Chandler Harris was a white journalist who published the first Brer Rabbit slave folklore stories, tales that he had heard told by an elder slave during his youth, in his local newspaper. After gaining popularity Harris took on the alias of an elderly slave, Uncle Remus, and published his first book, Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings. This move by Harris was a very controversial one. Through his adoption of the Uncle Remus character he brought a literary minstrel show to life. He used Uncle Remus as a sort of “black face” in print.
This literary minstrel show gives light to a mocking of the African American culture. Throughout his book all of the African American characters are extremely exaggerated so as to add humor and lighten the immoral institution of slavery, thus downplaying its severity. Due to the great amount of recognition and fame that Harris’ book received, Disney felt compelled to make Uncle Remus’ tales into the animated classic Song of the South. This film was an instant success among both children and adults.
In this film, Disney’s first hired black actor, James Baskett, playing the role of the slave Uncle Remus, seemingly befriends and entertains his young white master with African folklore and culture. In a sense this movie serves as a feel good film for many whites trying to justify the unjustifiable, slavery. This movie which was released in the 1940’s depicts racial harmony in the south between slaves and their masters. This depiction is a very inaccurate portrayal of the relationship between slaves and their masters. It serves as a basis to take away from the horrid, gory, and immoral nature of slavery.
For instance, whenever Johnny, the little white boy, is upset about anything, Uncle Remus always comes to his rescue and tells him a story to cheer him up. During this scene it almost seems as if there loving relationship between the slave and his young master. This relationship is strongly exaggerated throughout the film in order to down play the reality of being a slave. Throughout this movie, the characters of Uncle Remus’ tales were clearly depicted as slave characters with the sole purpose of entertaining its white master.
For instance when Uncle Remus is telling Johnny about Brer Rabbit and the Laughing Place, all of the animated figures are wearing the dull clothing that the slaves are seen wearing throughout the film, speaking in an extremely exaggerated Gullah dialect, and are blatantly depicted as very unintelligent characters. This animated interpretation demeans the African American folklore and further degrades African American culture. Disney’s Song of the South portrays African American people as humans with weak character who are comical, ignorant, and submissive.
When Uncle Remus, a slave, is seen dancing and skipping while singing Zip e dee do dah, slavery is once again depicted as fun and games. Uncle Remus seems as if he loves his current position as a slave and would prefer no other place but the plantation. When in actuality this is probably farthest from the truth. In reality, slaves where not even treated as human beings. They were said by whites to be born inferior for the sole purpose of servitude and entertainment, a lesser breed, so to speak.
Slaves were forced to behave in a submissive way and entertain their masters with their seeming ignorance due the fear of beatings, hangings, and other types of cruel treatment. These are but a few details that happen to be missing from Disney’s wonderful harmony filled world of the south. The world that is relayed to many children through this film can have very negative affects on their lives. The minds of children are very impressionable and movies such as Song of the South give a very strong message to its viewers.
During the film, Toby, the young slave child, is constantly reprimanded for his actions, while Johnny is treated as if he is an angel even in situations where he may have been wrong. The message of this scene echoes the social order our society, teaching children of all cultures white superiority and black inferiority. These false teachings can be very damaging to children, due to the fact they may very well reenact the depicted behavior. This film serves as basis to keep people “in their place. If someone, especially a child, is constantly told negative things about themselves they began to believe these things and fall as a victim to the negative teachings; on the other hand, if another child is constantly uplifted by society and told that they are capable of all things, they will be more likely to be successful in life. An accurate portrayal of life in the south before the Emancipation Proclamation can be seen when listening for the deeper meaning of the Brer Rabbit stories. Story telling is a very large part of African American culture.
Since slaves were not allowed to read, write, nor openly express themselves, they had to resort to other means of emotional outlet. Due to these restrictions they resorted to oral tradition. The stories that were told during Song of the South give insight to the true lives of American slaves. For instance, the Brer Rabbit tales are much more than they appear to be. For Uncle Remus Brer Rabbit is much more than an entertainment piece. Brer Rabbit is seen by the African American slave as a representation of himself. In most of the tales Brer Rabbit is smart and clever, always outsmarting the other characters.
The talents that Brer Rabbit possesses are those needed by slaves for survival on the plantation. In the film, during Uncle Remus’ tales, Brer Rabbit always escaped for his oppressors. Due to the unhappy nature of life, for a slave, on the plantation, many slaves had to outsmart their master in order to escape and runaway to freedom just as Brer Rabbit always did. The Brer Rabbit character represents all aspects of freedom. Throughout the film, Uncle Remus was seen as a very loving, kind, and docile, while Brer Rabbit, the main character of each of his stories, was many times portrayed as violent and hateful.
Brer Rabbit is Uncle Remus’ outlet. In the story entitled Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby, Brer Rabbit is stuck in tar because he wouldn’t control his temper and mind his business. This put Brer Rabbit in the position where he is about to be roasted by Brer Fox; however, he uses his intelligence to talk his way out of the situation and into freedom. Uncle Remus lives as a freeman through this character outsmarting his oppressor and unmasking his real feelings regarding the institution of slavery. Many limitations were put on slaves due the master’s fear for of control.
These limitations were meant to oppress the slaves and limit their thinking abilities, thus keeping them under a veil of ignorance. Although many laws were made for oppression, the Brer Rabbit tales erased these limits. Through the Brer Rabbit character there were infinite possibilities. The lessons taught during these tales show that the slaves were very aware that they were not inferior and that no one should accept limitations on self. Due to the fact that slaves knew that they were not inferior, they were able to tolerate and be somewhat content in their situation.
This contentment is also shown through Uncle Remus’ stories. During each of his stories Brer Rabbit’s survival is based on his ability to reverse situations. This reliance on reversal helps the possibility loom that they may soon be free from bondage. The characters of slave folklore provided a life without bounds for the oppressed and allowed them to be, not happy, but content. African Americans have been depicted in a variety of ways that attempt to lower the black moral and force its people into submission, while heightening the white conscience and lifting it out of immorality.
Song of the South and Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings serve as a perfect attest to the previous statement. When skimming the surface, as Joel Chandler Harris’ and Walt Disney have done while portraying their various interpretations of slave folklore in Song of the South, there is a definite picture of racism and an establishing of sociological roles based on race. However, it is not until you look beneath the surface that you will find the true meanings the African American folklore.