Guilty As Charged

I was just a little kid when I first saw the movie. It was still the ‘70s and I was just a little dude when my family went to see the movie. It was a Disney film, a re-release of an older movie, and my family was in love with it. I was still a very, very wee guy, having been born in ’74, but seeing the animation mixed with live action blew my wig back. It was one of those experiences that stick with you and here, almost forty years later I still can remember the excitement we all felt for the film. A few years back I was on my second tour of duty working at a local used and collectibles store when I decided to go through their vintage posters and see what they had under the guise of cataloging them. It was a treasure trove. I had first discovered the poster gold mine the first time I worked at the store and had wrangled some great ones from them – THE EVIL DEAD, THE CAR, CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, DEEP RED, THE THING, GO APE (if you know posters and collectibles this is a sort of holy grail poster that was for a screening for all of the PLANET OF THE APES films that showed a gorilla-guy in the Uncle Sam pose. Alas, my poster is very much used as it was modified by the theater it was at so the value is only in its awesomeness now) and a lot of other original theater releases that were right from the time they came out. There were a few I missed out on but I got the best. The second time through I was able to go through all of them and cataloged them and acquired another boatload of great stuff and in this second group I found the poster from this movie I had loved long ago. That poster know hangs in my living room and is sort of my little happy place because it reminds me of a time and moment that meant the world to me and a film I still love.

Ah, but the poster has become a controversial one as I have had at least one friend vocally tell me of his disdain for the poster and a friend of my wife simply refers to the poster as ‘that racist poster’ and other versions of that sentiment. To say that both opinions upset me is an understatement because I am blinded by the past and by my sentimentality and honestly, because some things just are what they are and this, this is just a movie.

The movie is called Song of the South and it is a film that has become a firebrand and has garnered enough anger and controversy that Disney has never properly released it for home release and the film has all but been buried. The film is an adaptation of a book of fairy tales written by a white man and ‘told’ by a black man who was an ex-slave who had all manner of folk stories about the animals of the area that he would tell to children. The stories had been collected from other actual stories and anecdotes and had been released in the late 1800s. Disney adapted these stories into a film it released in the ‘60s and as time and social consciousness caught up to the film it was seen as racist at worst and criminally naïve at worst. The film depicts the storyteller, Uncle Remus, as a kindly old black man who lives with other former slaves on the plantation where we can presume he used to be a slave and he tells the stories to the children there, including the white children of the area. The plantation workers are happy and sing, Remus is playful, and overall everyone is content. The film is a sweet tale about the mischief the children get into on the plantation peppered with Remus’ stories, which are told via cartoon. One of the bigger issues people have with the film is the ‘tar baby’, which is a trap used by the two cartoon villains Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear to trap Br’er Rabbit. Br’er Rabbit and the other animals are voiced by what I would have to guess are black voice actors who play up the Southern sass of the characters and the slowness of that dialects delivery and it is considered by some that these vocal characterizations are racist because they deliver exaggerated performances that border on mockery. The ‘tar baby’ consists of two lumps of tar molded to look like a small figure and dressed to complete the look. When the arrogant Br’er Rabbit comes across the baby he is angered at the insolence of the baby when it refuses to speak to him and so he decides to fight the tar and gets very, very stuck.

The film has only managed to grow in controversy as society has become more and more socially aware and aware of the ways in which blacks and other races and peoples were portrayed. Let’s face it, we white folks have a lot we of misdeeds and ignorance we need to face up to and while this isn’t the blog for discussing that and I am against a sort of reparation I do think it’s legit to want a little understanding that how whites portrayed others did effect how those people saw themselves and how we saw them and did effect people deeply. All this being said though, I have to be honest – some things are overblown. This is one of those things.

I love Song of the South and that isn’t apt to change. I see it for what it is and for what people believe it to be. I completely understand the criticisms levelled against it and won’t argue – the film is painfully naïve in its portrayal of post-slavery Southern life. The film came out in a time where people were struggling and fighting for rights that they deserved to have as American citizens and I can’t fathom how upsetting this film would have been to those people fighting for those rights. This is a film that wouldn’t and couldn’t be released now as it is because while it doesn’t glorify slavery in any way and doesn’t get into any of that the notion of the ‘happy slave’ is still there in the background and while these are former slaves it’s not something that can be outright ignored. Imagine a film that portrays happy Jews living ‘free’ at a death camp. Not the most pleasant image. BUT in saying all that we miss that this is a FILM, a FAMILY FILM and was an adaptation of a book that was set in and written just outside of this period in history – and again, this is just a movie. Too easily we forget that while we consider ourselves to be high thinkers and desperately concerned with the world we are still becoming self-aware to things that common sense dictates we should know. We are just now facing that – wow, gays are people too, people who may want to marry, wow, mind blown! – and we still have a lot to learn. So pardon me if I find it a bit convenient and disingenuous to lob hatred at something that came from an era where we were still learning and judging it for things that we can never know whether they were intentional or not.

It’s a movie!

Song of the South is a sweet, dopey film that has become legendary when it didn’t really deserve it. Instead of using it as a tool to discuss that era – the ‘60s and the post-slavery era – we have hidden the film away. Hundreds of people worked on that film. The film starred a black man in an era where that wasn’t a usual thing. And dammit people did love the film. How dare anyone tell those people they are racist or ignorant for loving it. If I am able to see the story for what it is and not get hung up on what other things people see then why am I a bad person? Personally I do see the issues in the film but also understand that it wasn’t the intention of the filmmakers or the original author to make a mockery of former slaves or to make light of their lives. This is essentially a fairy tale and as such it doesn’t cleave to the common world we live in. It’s not meant to tell a story that’s based on reality no more than Titanic was meant to tell the real tale of what happened to that ship. Look, Song of the South upsets and offends some people. OK. Fine. But leave me out of it. It is very convenient to look to the past and judge it for things that we are just seeing as wrong. Some things again are common damn sense – slavery is bad as is any abuse of a hu
man or animal, pretty simple logic there – but some are not. Some issues take time to come terms with and unfortunately some lessons take time to learn. There are things we need to still learn but we can’t always learn them without time to reflect.
Movies have power. All art does. Make no mistake. And we don’t always understand its power. But we can choose whether or not we want to get outraged. Sometimes though that outrage serves a purpose and makes us think about things we may not have wanted to and to be aware of feelings we weren’t aware we had. I am offended by things all the time but it doesn’t make those things invalid or the love people have for them invalid. Just means that I see things differently.

Too often we love to pull out our personal milk crates to step up on and tell people all the things they are doing and thinking and saying that is wrong all while we ignore the mirror every morning that shows how flawed we are too. There are issues we need to address and will never be able to stop addressing and racial issues are very high on that list but we can’t start judging history and every person and thing that came before us for thinking in a manner that was simply what people thought like. We all conveniently forget our own ignorance and most folks, given a learning moment or an experience will see the world open up before them and their narrow views will change but we cannot hate those who never had that moment. And we’re not talking about people who committed atrocities but people who just didn’t get the chance to see a bigger world. I have too much baggage to go around judging people for things and if someone thinks they’re that infallible and they have nothing better to do than they are free to judge me and my love for this film.

It is what it is and people will do and feel what they feel. I would never tell someone to not be upset or offended by something because it isn’t for me to tell them what to think and feel but in saying that I expect them to let me think and feel what I will. It’d be swell if we all were great people and wanted only what was best for the human race and the earth and its creatures but the song doesn’t play that way and sometimes we’re just muddling along. I am sad that Song may never be released because it deserves to be seen. It deserves to be loved. And people deserve to see it. I grow tired of hearing how racist it is from people who have never seen it. At least if some folks see it they can speak more intelligently when they swing their holier than thou around. In the end it is what it is and if someone wants to be mad at me for having a poster up of a movie I love – a movie I grew up with – then so be it. I am happy to show them the way out and will be wise enough to lock the door when they’re gone. I struggled for a long time in writing this because the last thing I wanted was to be seen as insensitive or racist because I have this poster up and love the film but I finally just don’t care. If a stranger wants to judge me they can because they know nothing about the real me and if people I know do it then as I said, I have a swell door just waiting to be used.

Whatever you think, whatever you feel don’t let someone tell you it’s invalid – just never stop examining why you feel that way and whether that feeling might need to be updated.

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Author: Chris Ringler

Writer, blogger, reviewer, artist, arts and cultural events coordinator, and semi-professional weirdo. Author of a heap of books from horror to fairy tale to kid's.

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