Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Song of the South

It is never quite clear whether Song of the South (1945, dir. Harve Foster, Wilfred Jackson) takes place before or after the Civil War. We can guess that it occurs after the war, since the young boy’s father is a newspaper writer in Atlanta whose editorials are not popular among many readers. This may have something to do with why the boy and his mother go to live with the grandmother—to escape the unpleasantness of their lives in Atlanta. (It may also have to do with the fact that Joel Chandler Harris, author of the Uncle Remus tales, was a post-Civil War Atlanta newspaper writer). Walt Disney himself claimed the film was about the time following the Civil War. However, if we base the time of the film on the behavior of the African American characters, who work in the fields and at menial jobs and who show fawning respect and deference to the white characters, and who sing contentedly on their way to and from work in the fields, the time could just as well be before the Civil War. Oddly, the film never mentions the Civil War. It might well have never occurred. The film occurs in a sort of alternative universe. This ambiguity about when it is actually set, the absence of references to important events in the outside world, suggests that the makers of Song of the South were uncomfortable with their subject.

Song of the South mentions the city of Atlanta a few times—it is where the father works, where he is going after leaving his unhappy wife and son on the plantation, where Uncle Remus plans to go after being ordered not to have anything to do with the boy. That is, Atlanta is the modern world, the place of controversy, discontentment, dispossession, broken homes, endangered marriages, unhappy families. When the father comes back to the plantation at the end of the field and announces that he plans to stay, the family is reunited and we know where the film’s heart lies—on the plantation, where the darkies sing and Uncle Remus tells his stories, the opposite of everything that big cities represent.

Because it was last available for sale in the 1980s, and last shown on television in the early 1970s, many people have never seen Song of the South and know about it only by reputation, by what others report about it. The film’s reputation as a racist encomium to the Old South has prevented its release in DVD. It is an important document in the response of American films to history, slavery, and to race relations in the 20th century. Unlike Birth of a Nation, which is an impressive film, and a racist one, Song of the South is not especially distinguished, but it deserves to be seen so that viewers can judge for themselves the film’s reputation and can appreciate how far American race relations and the filmmaking industry have come in the last 60 or more years.

If this film were more tightly focused on the friendship of the boy and Uncle Remus, if the timing of events in the film were clearer, it might be more difficult (though not impossible) to accuse it of racism and racial stereotyping. Remus and the boy are individuals. Individuals have specific and distinctive personalities. Individual relationships can occur in any form and fashion. There is no reason why an elderly black man and a young white boy should not strike up a friendship, especially when the black man is naturally inclined to like children, and when the young boy needs a father figure. If the film does occur shortly after the Civil War, during Reconstruction (of which the film gives barely a hint), and since it is set in the rural South, then certain elements of Remus’ dress, speech, behavior, and living habits make more sense—they reflect the particularities of place and time and economic status. From this point of view, Remus and the boy stand only for themselves, not for anything larger.

It is the larger context of this film that makes it what it is: an apology for racial paternalism and the Old South. In the larger context, Remus is the focus of a film that argues for the good old simplicity of slavery times. Song of the South in this regard is a latter-day version of the 19th-century apologist stories of Thomas Nelson Page (“Marse Chan”) and others. It invokes all the sacred icons of the venerated Old South, the white columned plantation house foremost among them. The white inhabitants of the house dress in elegance, have swank parties, live a life of leisure. The black servants (or slaves, depending on when the film takes place) love their white masters, regard themselves as members of the family (though they understand the limits of their membership). Uncle Remus himself gives advice to his mistress but knows when to back off. She understands the wisdom of his words but at the same time calls him “an old rascal.” As if to make clear its position, the film trots out Hattie McDaniel, the actress who portrayed Mammy in Gone with the Wind (1938). She plays almost exactly the same character.

Many plantation films focus visually on the plantation house. In this one the columned front of the house is frequently shown, but it is often seen from the perspective of the slave quarters nearby. Thus we see the house not only up close but also in the distance with the slave cabins on the left and the fields of the farm on the right. This is an unusual perspective, one that emphasizes the size of the farm and that perhaps is meant to reflect the importance of the African Americans in the film. When Uncle Remus addresses the boy’s mother or grandmother in front of the house, he always stands at the bottom of the steps, she on the upper steps, looking down at him. He enters the house only when invited to enter.

An underlying premise of the film is that modern times bring family discord and disunity. In the opening scene, when we first see the boy and his parents, as they are headed towards the plantation where the boy and his mother are to stay while the father returns to the city, we can see something is wrong between the father and mother. The nature of their problem is not clear. Although they embrace with passion as the father is about to leave, there is coldness and tension between them. This is about as clear as a children’s film made in 1945 could ever be about the marital problems of parents. The boy isn’t old enough to understand what is wrong, but he senses the discord and is heartbroken when his father leaves. Later that night he tries to run away, intent on going back to Atlanta to be with his father. This is when he happens on Uncle Remus, telling Brer Rabbit stories to a group of black children. The boy has heard about Uncle Remus and has looked forward to meeting him. Remus becomes the boy’s substitute father. Remus is portrayed as a compassionate old man who understands the boy’s unhappiness and is pleased enough to spend time with him.

Song of the South is another film in which an insightful black character helps the hapless white folks solve their problems (a standard stereotype of race relations in film and literature—we see it even in the recent films Black Snake Moan—2006--and in The Secret Life of Bees--2008). The only insight the film offers into Remus’ own personal situation, his possible loneliness and suffering, comes in a few thrown-away comments he makes as he is getting ready to go away to Atlanta.

Uncle Remus as a character symbolizes all the purported virtues of the mythical Old South, especially as compared to the problems and coldness of the modern world. The film clearly endorses the virtues of elegance and entitlement, rigid social and racial hierarchy, white racism, and so on associated with the Old South. It may use the Old South as a vehicle for expressing more general discontent and unhappiness with the state of things in the modern world, it may not even be that interested in the Old South as a real time and place, but even so what it yearns for nostalgically is a past of racist agrarian pastoralism.

In line with the portrayal of older women in such Disney films as Snow White, 101 Dalmatians, Sleeping Beauty, The Littlest Mermaid, and others, Song of the South offers in the boy’s mother (played by Ruth Warrick) one of the coldest characters imaginable. She believes Uncle Remus has a bad influence on her son and ultimately forbids him from seeing the boy. She makes her son dress in Little Lord Fauntleroy-type clothing that embarrasses him, and in general doesn’t seem to recognize his needs as a young child who misses his father. The film implies that she is uncomfortable with the controversy caused by her husband’s unpopular newspaper articles, and that her unhappiness is part of the reason for their separation. She seems more interested in maintaining social status and propriety than in the problems of her son and duties of her husband. Of course, Uncle Remus helps her see things in a proper light.

See my entry on this film in the New Georgia Encyclopedia.

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