James Leroy Wilson's one-man magazine.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Song of the South and Disney's decision

I'm listening to the You Must Remember This podcast season Six Degrees of Song of the South, about the once-popular movie from 1946 that Disney doesn't want you to see.

The problem with the movie, for those who are unaware or haven't seen it, is its idyllic, unhistorical post-Civil War setting: a Southern plantation in which ex-slaves happily, seemingly voluntarily, continue to work for their former owner. It conveys, perhaps subtly for a children's movie, that blacks should be content in their "place." That's why the movie was harshly criticized when it came out, not just by black organizations but by white writers for leading newspapers and magazines. It wasn't a "product of its times," it was beyond the pale even in pre-Civil Rights 1946 America.

The counterpoint is that all children take from the movie is that a kind black man imparts wisdom to children through story-telling, so how can that be racist? Most children who saw it, or who may see it today, probably wouldn't see racism, just a nice story with good cartoons. Plus, it had a great, Oscar-winning song, Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah, which took on a life of its own. 

 The movie was just a moderate success when it was released in 1946. It was re-released in 1956 without much fanfare, then again in 1972 when it became hugely successful. Podcast host Karina Longworth indicates that was due to a backlash to the tumultuous Civil Rights Movement. As the nation swung to the right, it was re-released in 1980 and again in 1986. 

After that, I'm not sure how frequently Disney released its old movies in theaters due to the burgeoning home video market. What we do know is that Disney has never released Song of the South for the home market, and it won't be available on its new Disney Plus. Longworth quotes Disney CEO Bob Iger in the first episode, from a 2011 Disney shareholders meeting:
"I had watched Song of the South again and, even though we’ve considered from time to time bringing it back, I didn’t think it was the right thing for the company to do. It was made in a different time. Admittedly you could use that as context, but I just felt that there are elements to the film, while it was a relatively good film, that wouldn’t necessarily sit right or feel right to a number of people today. And, just felt that it wouldn’t be in the best interest of our shareholders to bring it back, even though there would be some financial gain. Sometimes you make sacrifices on the financial side to do what you believe is right and that’s an example of that."  
The comments section was full of outrage, comparing this to schools preventing students from reading To Kill a Mockingbird, calling for a Disney boycott (how often has that ever worked?), complaining about Political Correctness, and other ridiculousness. I suppose that's to be expected at a website dedicated to the movie.

 Of course, no giant corporation ever "wins" a PR battle when forced to confront a controversial topic. No matter the decision, it will be met with derision and scorn in some quarters. If Disney releases Song of the South, it does so out of greed; if it doesn't, it's cynically attempting protect its reputation.

But I think Iger said the right thing without grandstanding or throwing the film's makers under the bus. A CEO shouldn't lead his company into a public relations minefield, which it would do by releasing Song of the South. Those who deny its racism seem to have an unspoken but implicit assumption that if there is peace and neighborly kindness between the races, racism doesn't exist. Apparently, if there's no violence, there's no racism. In this line of thinking, blacks and liberal busy-bodies who call out institutional and structural racism are in fact provoking racism.

Such an attitude is itself racist, but no debate can persuade a person who doesn't think he's racist that he really is. The racism debate is one Disney decided to forego. The company knows Song of the South is racist, and can steer clear of controversy and debate - headaches - by keeping it off the market.

Disney can't undo the fact that it made the movie the way it did, decades ago. But refusing to profit from it is the best way it can preserve its brand in the 2020's. It's an example of how the right business decision is also the ethical decision.

James Leroy Wilson writes from Nebraska. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. If you find value in his articles, your support through Paypal helps keep him going. Permission to reprint is granted with attribution.

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