Thursday, February 11, 2010

Walt Disney: A Racist in Song of the South?

Are you a fan of Song of the South? Do you think Disney should release the film? Does the movie carry elements of negative stereotyping or prejudice? Please comment and let me know.

Our lovable animated friend, Brer Rabbit, was quite perplexed with a lifeless tar baby that didn’t offer greetings one morning. “Well, suh, dar he was, sittin' in de middle o' de road -- jes' like you's sittin' in dat chair -- only he's all mixt up wid dat tar baby ...” ( The tale goes that Brer Rabbit decided to give the “tar baby” a big whack for his apparent rudeness. Not knowing this was a “tar” baby, Brer Rabbit soon found himself covered in tar and unable to move.  The controversial issue of racism in the film industry today has led us Americans into a predicament much like Brer Rabbit, in which we have become so entangled in “political correctness” that we restrict our own progress. This level of racial awareness has greatly increased from the day that Brer Rabbit was first animated in Walt Disney’s infamous Song of the South.

Was Walt Disney racist? There is little documentation of Walt Disney’s personal feelings about racism. We do know that he was an entrepreneur and an artist. He had a deep imagination and courage to bring that imagination to life. As the founder and king of animation he started a corporation that stands as one of the largest entertainment businesses of the world. Out of all these characteristics mentioned, Disney’s greatest attribute was his deep optimism. This optimism is what led him to bring such a dream to real life. Disney had a $17 million debt and huge amount of criticism from faithless onlookers when he built Disneyland in 1955. It was his optimism that kept the company moving. His optimism is felt in the animated films he produced. They bear an overly simplified “happily ever after” feel that gives audiences a break from the real world.

In his early years, Disney’s animations were most enticing to children. Take for example, Snow White, Pinnochio, and Dumbo; each of these films contains a certain amount of joyful innocence.  It is a danger to over-analyze children’s animated films, for they were not meant to receive such “adult” criticism. Likewise, it is also a danger to under-analyze children’s films for they are often created with deeper morals in store—morals difficult for children to grasp. This paper seeks to give a proper analysis of Walt Disney’s Song of the South. The film is famous for its revolutionary step into multi-racial media. More specifically, it was a film that offered another perspective of the African American. The debate over the film is considered by one scholar, “the best documented occurrence of public resistance to racism in animated film” (Cohen, 2004, p. 60).  In providing this analysis, we shall be able to unmask the creator of magic—Disney himself, and more clearly form our own personal opinions about the film and its supposed racial stereotyping.

Douglas Brode claims Disney was an African American at heart (2005, pp. 54-57). In his book, Brode compares Walt Disney to a prominent black character, “Uncle Remus,” in the film Song of the South. Remus tells the laughable stories of Brer Rabbit and his crazy adventures on the Southern frontier. Brode says, “Uncle Remus is Disney” (2005, p. 57), owing to the characters desire to tell fanciful stories and his early life of obscurity.

Disney’s first famous toon—Mickey Mouse—was actually the first black animated figure according to Brode (2005, pp. 50-51). About Mickey’s appearance, Brode said, “The white area running from just above his eyes to slightly below his mouth appears masklike, as if the character has adopted this guise in order to ‘pass’ and survive in the Anglo world of his time.” The infamous Steamboat Willie depicts Mickey piloting an old steamboat through the Deep South. In subsequent films, Mickey “performs ragtime for a white audience,” and he “dares enter a suburban neighborhood, bringing soulful music with him, improving the lifestyle immensely” (Brode, 2005, p. 51). These movements invoke a cultural awareness in Walt Disney. He apparently enjoyed the culture of the great Jazz age that had erupted in the black American world of the early 1900’s.

Despite these obvious applications of culturally aware art, Disney was objective about Mickey:

All we ever intended for him or expected of him was that he should continue to make people everywhere chuckle with him and at him. We didn’t burden him with any social symbolism, we made him no mouthpiece for frustrations or harsh satire. Mickey was simply a little personality assigned to the purposes of laughter (

Just like his statement on Mickey, Disney was also a bystander about racism in the films he created. We must realize that he was an entertainer, not a political cartoonist.

Walt Disney was the innovator of childhood imagination. He understood the importance of education and its role in imagination. He made it a pleasure to learn. Disney played off many famous fairy/folk tales that promoted good morals. He used history and culture to broaden the American view. His greatest creation—Disneyland—lets visitors sit at the feet of Abraham Lincoln, enjoy a ride on an old steamboat and learn about technology of the future. Song of the South takes visitors to the late 1800’s in the American South.  This film along with others that Walt Disney created, show diversity and partial reality, and still involves the animator’s perspective and the audience’s imagination.

To begin to analyze a work for racial stereotyping, we must first define what it means to stereotype a race. Typically “stereotyping” has negative connotations. It requires the act of attaching certain characteristics to a particular group of people—in Song of the South, that group is the Negro. Stereotypes have truth built in them. For instance, white folk generally have light tan or “peach” colored skin, whereas African Americans have darker colored skin. Is it wrong to apply the stereotype in this example? Most—white and black people—would agree on these assumptions. It may be dangerous to apply the conditions in a stereotype to every member of its particular group.  An example of a negative stereotype purports that all Americans are prideful and ignorant when touring foreign countries.  True, there have probably been many cases of prideful American tourists; however, to make that assumption about all Americans is obviously an ignorant statement itself. We can be easily offended by such stereotypes because they are either false or negative reflections of the truth.

Only in the last half of the 20th century have people become increasingly sensitive to the any form of political incorrectness. The way an animator depicts a black man as being “less educated” or a Native American as an “injun” may cause turmoil. It is very offensive when the depiction is one that points at the viewer’s race. When this occurs, we as Americans tend to think the animator meant to label all people of that particular race in that fashion. However, that is not always the case.

Early animations depicting blacks are highly offensive to most people. They portray blacks with white handprints, excessively large lips and noses, and a skin that is completely coal black. Clearly these representations are over-exaggerated. Warner Brothers and Universal Pictures have employed these caricatures in many early films of the 1900’s.  These representations can also be found in some of the early Disney works but are not as prevalent. Disney created many productions that used animals as the main characters rather than humans thus enabling him to avoid racial imagery. Song of the South employed a mix of live African American actors and personified, animated animals.

Because of the fear of a racially aware America, the Walt Disney Corporation has never released Song of the South on video. The film is a direct portrayal of a Southern Plantation with an African-American community that “camps” nearby (Miller & Rode, 1995, p. 89). The young white boy, Johnny, who lives on the plantation, becomes distraught after the separation of his parents. He decides to run away but as he passes by a camp of blacks telling stories around a campfire, he becomes captivated by the storyteller, “Uncle Remus.” Coincidentally, Remus tells the story of Brer Rabbit who also tried to run away. Later in the film Johnny becomes friends with Uncle Remus and learns life lessons from the fanciful tales of Brer Rabbit. Johnny’s mother, on the other hand, sees a negative influence in the stories and forbids Remus from communicating with her son. Consequently, Johnny’s white mother partially plays the role of the opponent in the plot.

The film was strongly attacked at its premiere in 1946. African American protesters were mainly concerned with the film’s portrayal of the black man as a slave. The NAACP commented on the film: “Making the use of beautiful Uncle Remus folklore, ‘Song of the South’ unfortunately gives the impression of an idyllic master-slave relationship, which is a distortion of the facts” (Cohen, 2004, pp. 60-61).  Viewing the ugliness of slavery, many of the racially sensitive deny it ever existed in American history. The word “slavery” has always been a very sensitive topic among both whites and blacks possibly because slavery is inherently a part of our country’s heritage. We do not embrace it, but we do not forget it—there are lessons to be learned from it. Disney Corporation claimed the film’s setting was after the civil war in 1867, when slavery was banned by the Constitution.

Bosley Crowther from the New York Times attacked Song of the South for glamorizing the role of the black “Negroes bowing and scraping and singing spirituals in the night that one might almost imagine that you figure Abe Lincoln made a mistake” (Cohen, 2004, p. 60). According to Crowther the film exemplified a slave-master relationship, showing an optimistic black community in good obedience and humility towards the whites. This notion is again flawed, for to be historically correct the movie is a closer portrayal of a late 1800’s South.  Sad history reveals that the freed slaves after the Civil war were still in a state of oppression because of Jim Crowe laws and raw prejudice. Jay Mandle claimed this point simply in the title of his book, Not Slave, Not Free: African American Economic Experience Since the Civil War. In the book he reveals the unfortunate predicament of the freed slaves after the Civil War—that they simply became underpaid sharecroppers with no hope for real financial progression. “Even the post-war period was no Disneyland for former slaves,” says Merlin Jones of ( Even after this lengthy support, the main character, “Uncle Remus” does display certain independence. Brode mentions that the film portrays Remus “as a typical Disney hero who understands authority must, when proven wrong, be challenged” (2005, p. 57).  Remus also values the importance of living close to the earth. The film showed the loving warmth of Remus’s cabin in contrast to the lifeless plantation home (Brode, 2005, p. 54). Remus longingly reminisces in older days when he begins telling a story to Johnny: “De critters, dey was closer to de folks an' de folks, dey was closer to de critters” (

On another note, seeing Remus’s language, we can understand how critics have always attacked the film for stereotyping the Negro dialogue. This is undeniable. The script was produced and revised by Anglos which is unfortunate for the reputation of the film. However, this error does little to degrade the intelligence and character of Remus and even more largely, the African American race. Remus is “Rousseau’s natural man, that philosopher’s best man” (Brode, 2005, p. 54). His good service towards Johnny coupled with his application and teaching of morals through his stories reflects the real man within Remus—making him the most noble and wise character of the film.

After analyzing the supposed African American stereotypes, we may look at the intentions of Walt Disney concerning the racist content. Walt Disney said, "The first books I ever read were the Uncle Remus stories. Ever since then, these stories have been my special favorites. I've just been waiting until I could develop the proper medium to bring them to the screen" ( The original stories of Uncle Remus, written by Joel Chandler Harris (a southern white author), contained deep stereotyping. Disney did have some idea that the content in Song of the South would be deemed racial stereotyping by certain groups. With this oversight, he hired a highly liberal—although white—screenwriter, Maurice Rapf, to revise the script for the film (Cohen, 2004, p. 62). “It would be wrong to conclude… that Walt Disney was a racist. Maurice Rapf points out that everybody at the studio was uneducated concerning what was racist material” (Cohen, 2004, p. 69).

The film is a beautiful work that revolutionized technological animation and racial diversity in film, yet it continues to collect dust in the Disney vault with little to no hope for release. James Baskett (Uncle Remus), was the first actor Walt Disney ever hired ( The film makes out to be an effective portrayal of social equality when contrasted with the prejudices of 1946 when the film was released. At the premiere in Atlanta, Baskett was denied lodging in the city’s Hotels for they were reserved for “white only” (Miller & Rode, 1995, p. 86). Baskett was highly talented and went on to win an honorary Academy Award for his role as Remus. He was denounced by a number of blacks after the Premiere but he now stands in deep remembrance as the lovable voice who sang, “Zip A Dee Do Dah” (

Referring back to the definition of stereotyping, Chris Willis, the founder of, made a profound statement: “Most innocent stereotypes are based upon the common denominator of reality” ( Indeed, every characteristic in the human family can be considered a stereotype and every piece of art whether in film, music, or literature expresses a particular stereotype. The ignorantly optimistic Walt Disney was not aware of the negativity of some of the stereotypes in his film, but in producing it he embraced the African American South. He exposed the “innocent stereotypes” of the rich Negro culture and captured their priceless folktales.

Consider the alternative “politically correct” Song of the South. Disney would have created a film with purely white characters, which all measurably spoke proper English and held equal financial status. How absurd would it be to deprive African American culture of some key characteristics (and yes, a few incorrect characteristics) of their early identity? Walt Disney, in a lecture “On American Culture” (Watt, 1995, p. 101), related that culture comprised not just those fancies of the “elite,” such as highly recognizable and remembered operas and paintings. He commented on the necessity of free choice and that “culture belonged ‘equally to all of us’” (Watt, 1995, p. 102). He said “a person’s culture represents his appraisal of the things that make up life” (Watt, 199, p. 102). In Disney’s mind, culture sprang from all people and, correspondingly, all people have free access to it.

Unfortunately today, there are still social rifts among people of differing races. Brer Rabbit, a toon, provided the ideal medium where two races could unite and provide and atmosphere of equality and toleration. His adventurous experiences were heard and felt by all in the movie. In the end, Johnny and his two friends (one black and the other white) hold hands and dance up onto a hill. Suddenly Brer Rabbit appears, jumping out of the cartoon world and into the real world. All the diversified entities seen in the film—black, white, rich, poor, and toon—finally come together in a symbolism of deleted racial boundaries. One commentator from the African American-produced Pittsburgh Courier said, “The truly sympathetic handling of the entire production from a racial standpoint is calculated… to prove of inestimable good in the furthering of interracial relations” (Brode, 2005, p. 54).

Floyd Norman, an black animator for Disney, now chuckles about the racial prejudice he felt in the 50’s in California. He drove a long commute from his residence in LA to the Disney Studio in Burbank because it was “nearly impossible for a person of color to rent an apartment in Burbank” (Norman, 2007, ¶4). Despite these injustices, Norman uses racial prejudice as a form of humor in his work. As said earlier, it is a danger to under-analyze a children’s film, but equally dangerous to over-analyze one. May we be well-informed of racial stereotypes but, like Norman, may we move forward and laugh off the blunders of the past. Brer Rabbit often overcame his woeful trials by imagining a visit to his imaginary “Laughing Place.”  Song of the South did display forms of racial stereotypes; however, the film cannot be dismissed as innovative, artistic, and delightfully optimistic.

Please sign the petition to have Song of the South released!

  • Brode, D. (2005). Multiculturalism and the mouse: Race and sex in Disney entertainment. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. Retrieved March 23, 2007, from
    Brode provides a positive few of the existence of race and sex in Disney media. His stance is widely different from the rest of the scholarly world which presumably attacks Disney for racial slurs and stereotypes. Brode shows how Disney has made America more diversified and tolerant. This is a great source to show the opposing side of the thesis.
  • Cohen. K. F., (2004). Forbidden animation: Censored cartoons and blacklisted animators in America. Jefferson, NC:McFarland & Company. Retrieved April 2, 2007, from
    This book takes an extensive look at the production, playing and critiquing of Song of the South. It helps to see what was going on behind the scenes while the film was being developed and shot. We can learn from this book, more of the mind of Disney.
  • Mandle, J. R. (1992). Not slave, not free: African American economic experience since the Civil War. (pp. 21-22). Durham, NC:Duke University Press. Retrieved April 6, 2007, from
    Mandle gives some general information of the aftermath of the Civil War. It is a great historical background to the day the movie was set, thus helping me to understand a little of the surroundings that could have showed up in the film.
  • Miller, S., & Rode, G. (1995). “The movie you see, the movie you don’t: How Disney do’s that old time derision. In E. Bell, L. Haas, & L. Sells (Eds.), From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture. (pp. 86-106). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. Retrieved March 23, 2007, from
    Miller and Rode delve into the racial imagery of many Disney films. They speak somewhat objectively, giving decent information and points of view from other scholars. This paper helps to see the real negative side of Song of the South.
  • Norman, F. (2007). Now in full color: A cartoonish take on black history. Retrieved April 1, 2007, from
    Norman gives a great rhetorically sound article on racism in Disney. The most interesting fact about the article is Norman’s ethos—he is black and he used to be a Disney animator. It is helpful to see his perspective.
  • (2007). Song of the south script. Retrieved April 6, 2007, from
    This website is completely pro biased towards Song of the South. It is loaded with information, graphics, and the original script to the film. It also contains a petition now with over 100,000 signatures of those who would like Song of the South to be released on video.
  • Watts, S. (1995). Walt Disney: Art and politics in the American century. The Journal of American History, 82(1), 84-110. Retrieved April 12, 2007, from JSTOR database.
    Watts portrays Disney as a man of both vice and virtue. The article makes connections to Disney and basic American ideals.
  • (no date). 100 Years of Magic - Walt Disney Quotes. Retrieved April 1, 2007, from
    This site is filled with general information about Walt Disney. It’s most helpful aspect is its database of quotes by Walt Disney. These quotes contain great insight into the real man, Disney.

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