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Disney may never live down Song of the South — or its attempted do-over

Splash Mountain’s closure is just the most recent attempt to rewrite Disney history

Detail from a 1946 poster for Disney’s movie Song Of The South, featuring a painted image of Black field hand Uncle Remus (James Baskett) telling stories to two white children, as cartoon versions of Brer Fox, Brer Rabbit, and Brer Bear hover overhead Image: John Kisch Archive/Getty Images

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Earlier this year, Orlando’s Disney World theme park closed down the water ride Splash Mountain due to its ties to Disney’s 1946 film Song of the South, known for its racist caricatures and reductive look at Reconstruction-era America. It’ll ultimately be replaced with a ride inspired by 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, a movie built around Disney’s first Black princess. The decision kicked off a wave of backlash, particularly from people who can’t stomach any sense of cultural change. Of course, a backlash to that backlash wasn’t far behind.

Missing from some of the discussion about Splash Mountain: any specific or nuanced reference to the chapter of Walt Disney Company history that the ride references, all of which the corporation has largely attempted to bury. Song of the South only exists as an artifact of random video uploading — Disney has never released the film digitally. But with a little digging, you can find another Disney movie that sheds light on the situation. Like Song of the South, it’s missing from Disney Plus. Also like Song of the South, it’s a 1940s movie that mixes live action with animation, leans heavily on a nostalgic view of America unsupported by historical record, and features a black character who wins over the white characters who view him as problematic and an upset to the status quo. The movie? 1948’s So Dear to My Heart, about a boy who adopts a black sheep on his grandfather’s Indiana farm and raises it to be a prize-winner at a local fair.

A 1948 lobby card for So Dear to My Heart, featuring a collage with a live-action image of child actor Bobby Driscoll hugging a black sheep, a copy of the book being adapted, and Disney cartoon images of a carnival and a black lamb Photo: LMPC via Getty Images

Perhaps the most interesting thing about So Dear to My Heart was that it was a do-over for the Walt Disney Company after the critical drubbing Walt himself took over Song of the South, his passion project. The main difference is that the troublesome black character in So Dear to My Heart (which even stars the same two child actors as Song of the South, Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten) is an animal, not kindly folklorist Uncle Remus, played by James Baskett. Song of the South fared well enough commercially when it was first released, but its overtly sentimental view of historical racial relations was criticized as a low point in Walt’s soft-pedaling of cultural history. So he tried again.

In both films, a narrator guides the audience into the storybook version of America’s heartland, a place where cartoons and people mingle freely, so long as they’re willing to believe in the magic of things. What got Walt into trouble with Song of the South was that the magic he was asking audiences to see was harmony in the Reconstruction South. And in Disney’s version of history, Black people were happy to stay on plantations working for white masters, caring for white children, and knowing their place was out of sight until they were called.

Walt Disney spent many years trying to make Song of the South, having long enjoyed the source material, the Uncle Remus stories written by Atlanta newspaper columnist Joel Chandler Harris. As a teenager in the 1860s, Harris moved onto a plantation called Turnworld, home of publisher and slave-owner Joseph Addison Turner. During the Civil War, Harris worked for Turner on The Countryman, a proudly Confederate newspaper, but he spent as much time in the slave quarters, listening to the stories shared by Turner’s slaves. After the war, Harris became a writer for the Atlanta Constitution, and his Uncle Remus stories catapulted him into infamy. Uncle Remus was a character who told the same outlandish stories Harris heard from Turner’s slaves, centering on mischievous forest animals Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Brer Bear. He wrote them in an exaggerated, caricatured version of a Southern Black patois of the era. Here’s one passage from Harris’ collection Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings:

“Hol’ on dar, Brer Rabbit,” sez Brer Fox, sezee.
“I ain’t got time, Brer Fox,” sex Brer Rabbit, sezee, sorter mendin’ his licks.
“I wanter have some confab wid you, Brer Rabbit,” sez Brer Fox, sezee.”
“All right, Brer Fox, but you better holler fum whar you stan’. I’m monstus full er fleas dis mawnin’,” sez Brer Rabbit, sezee.
“I seed Brer B’ar yistdiddy,” sez Brer Fox, sezee. “En he sorter rake me over de coals kaze you en me ain’t make frens en live naberly, en I told ’im dat I’d see you.”

A 1946 Song Of The South poster, with the painted face of Uncle Remus (James Baskett) smiling down on cartoon images of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Brer Bear Photo: LMPC via Getty Images

Harris, in his introduction to the volume, says his intention was to “preserve the legends themselves in their original simplicity, and to wed them permanently to the quaint dialect — if indeed, it can be a called a dialect — through the medium of which they have become a part of the domestic history of every Southern family; and I have endeavored to give to the whole a genuine flavor of the old plantation.” The animals in Harris’ regurgitations all bear close relation to the lazy and dimwitted stereotypes of Black culture employed by minstrel performers and caricaturists after the Civil War. The versions of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Brer Bear seen in the movie uphold that dialect and those stereotypes as well, and they’re the characters seen throughout Splash Mountain. Uncle Remus is not, however, and with his erasure from the story goes any confession or context for the racism of Song of the South.

Part of that context comes from the history that shaped the film. In her thorough podcast investigation of Song of the South, You Must Remember This host Karina Longworth notes that the likeliest source of the film’s Oscar-winning song, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” was in a Reconstruction character type named Zip Coon. Zip Coon and Jim Crow were two ubiquitous caricatures of Black men from the end of the Civil War. Jim Crow had already received a sort of airing in a Disney company film, during the sequence in 1941’s Dumbo when a group of crows, speaking in the same exaggerated dialect as Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox, serenade the hero. Jim Crow was also the catch-all name for the laws holding segregation in place in the United States until some 20 years after Song of the South, the same laws that kept star James Baskett from attending the Southern premiere of his own movie.

Song of the South starts with an Atlanta boy named Johnny (played by Driscoll) being dragged by his parents away from his old home and friends, to go live on his grandmother’s Southern plantation. Lonely and sad, Johnny finds solace in the stories of Uncle Remus, a Black field hand who lives on the edge of the plantation. Uncle Remus’ fables about Brer Rabbit and his fellow animals are animated by Disney veteran Wilfred Jackson (Cinderella), with Baskett frequently interacting directly with the animated characters. Reviews were appropriately scathing (John McCarten of The New Yorker said it felt like Disney wished the 13th Amendment had never passed), and public protests were held.

A 1946 lobby card for Song Of The South, with the movie’s human and cartoon cast walking along together above a caption that reads “Uncle Remus and ‘The Critters’ lead Johnny and Ginny on the Zip-a-dee-doo-dah trail to adventure.” Photo: LMPC via Getty Images

Walt Disney, seemingly aware that he was playing with fire, began to cover his bases even before the film began shooting. He attempted to hire prominent Black actor, singer, and activist Paul Robeson to star in and sign off on the movie. (Robeson turned him down.) In her podcast, Longworth also reads transcripts of Disney’s correspondence with card-carrying Communist writer Maurice Rapf, the son of MGM executive Harry Rapf, who Walt hired to script the movie. Walt courted Rapf by claiming his left-leaning humanism was exactly what Song of the South needed, to keep the film from the very stereotypes it wound up shamelessly trafficking in.

Rapf later claimed the script he wrote bore almost no resemblance to the final film. And yet he stayed with Disney, helping write Cinderella, among other films. Given Walt Disney’s history as a conservative — according to his daughter Lillian in the 2008 documentary Walt & El Grupo, Walt was deeply upset by the 1941 animators’ strike, and soured against radicalism — hiring Rapf was likely a way to launder his own politics, especially given that Rapf’s input was ignored.

But even in its day, Song of the South was derided as racist pandering, and it faced a nationwide attempt at a boycott. So why did Walt double down with a second film, taking much the same approach, and with the same cast? Kevin Perjurer — creator of the bountiful YouTube video essay series Defunctland, which explores theme park history — might have the answer. Perjurer has a special interest in Walt Disney, having spent hours deconstructing his business decisions and personality. One theory Perjurer has forwarded, in an excellent episode on the scuttled original plans for Disney World’s spinoff park Epcot, is that what Walt chased most was control. It wasn’t enough to provide people with entertainment: He wanted to manage how they lived, how they learned, how they ate and dressed.

Epcot, the project Walt was obsessing over on his deathbed, wasn’t intended as the genially amateurish World’s Fair-style sampling of foreign cultures it is today, but rather as an entire city where people would be observed in the performance of their own lives, with everything from meals to schedules arranged by Disney. Disney World’s Epcot sounds just enough like the Turnworld Plantation to still raise eyebrows among people skeptical of his penchant for historical revisionism in the name of a cartoonish vision of harmony.

Disney’s perspective as an animator and his yearning for scientific control over human life are more related than they seem. For Song of the South, he focused on bringing in Black performers like Baskett and Nick Stewart (who had also voiced Dumbo’s similarly shameful crows), who could not afford to turn down work, and whose mere presence would present a bulwark against criticism that the project promoted a racist worldview. In hiring Hollywood radicals like Rapf, Burl Ives (who assayed a role similar to Baskett’s in So Dear to My Heart), and Robeson (whose presence in Song would have doubled Walt’s ammunition against his critics), he could say that he was earnestly entertaining their perspective, even as he threw out their notes and made exactly the movie he wanted. And if, like Rapf, people had complaints, Walt paid so handsomely that it made it hard for creators to walk away.

A 1948 lobby card for So Dear to My Heart, with Burl Ives, Luana Patten, and Bobby Driscoll sitting on a horse cart together Photo: LMPC via Getty Images

And when Song of the South was rightly and roundly chastised, he just made the movie again, but with an animal instead of a Black character, so he could avoid criticism of his depiction of race altogether. (Though he still found time in So Dear to My Heart for an animated vignette featuring Columbus assailed by a black dragon on his way to America.) Disney hasn’t done as much to bury that movie’s existence — you can rent So Dear to My Heart on Amazon and other digital platforms, though it isn’t on Disney Plus. And its more elliptical approach (and the fact that it’s less memorable overall) has kept it from being a lightning rod for controversy on the scale of Song of the South. Now, Disney is finally removing Brer Rabbit from Splash Mountain, so he and his animated kin won’t keep serving as a reminder of Disney’s embarrassing history. The company learned Walt’s lessons about controlling reality all too well.

Walt Disney treated the lives of his public — to say nothing of his employees — like they were figures on a drawing board. If he got an equation wrong, he crossed out the mistake and tried again until he got it right. Disney’s heirs took this lesson to heart, especially when faced with the legacy of Song of the South. Though the film initially failed to capture the heart of the American public, carefully timed rereleases (in 1956, 1972, 1980, and 1986) proved it could still make money with Americans who were anxious to soak up those seductive fairy-tale images of Black servitude.

But Song of the South has disappeared into the Disney vault, and it remains there to this day, along with The Wetback Hound and Commando Duck. It was inconvenient to the company’s narrative, and to its bottom line. (If parkgoers could easily watch the movie, it would have rendered Splash Mountain more openly grotesque.) So, like an incorrectly carried remainder, it was hastily crossed out.

Moving forward, the company’s interpretations of ethnographic folklore have been managed with increasing care and input from the cultures being commoditized. The popularity of Mulan, Lilo & Stitch, and Moana eclipsed the complaints from advocacy groups, and kept them from becoming major news. These days, it’s often seen as a badge of honor for a culture when the Disney company starts to tell some version of its story. Walt chased control of the human experience, and all these years later, his grip on the puppet strings of his entertainment empire is still palpable. Walt’s paradise was always an illusion, a cartoon fantasy, but perhaps the most bizarre thing about it is that some people are still trying to protect it, as if the old man had just wandered off and might — like Uncle Remus in Song of the South’s final act — come back if called.

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