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Academic finds fraught history in forgotten Disney title

Academic finds fraught history in forgotten Disney title

By Gabe Brison-Trezise

Jason Sperb grew up watching Disney films and taking family trips to Disneyland and Disneyworld, but, as he said to a 20-person audience in the Gund Gallery’s Community Foundation Theater Wednesday afternoon, “there was always this hush around this film called Song of the South.”

Disney has restricted distribution of the film since its last release in 1986, presumably due to allegations of racism that have been leveled against it. “They’re just too worried about offending people,” said Sperb, who teaches at Northwestern University. The University of Texas Press published his book about the movie, Disney’s Most Notorious Film, in 2012.

Ostensibly set on a southern plantation after the end of slavery, the film has a “weirdly romanticized pre-Civil War mise-en-scène,” Sperb said. The protagonist, a young white boy named Johnny, meets an old African-American man named Uncle Remus, who teaches him a series of parables involving the trickster Br’er Rabbit and other folk creatures that Disney animated for the film.

“You have these slow, melodramatic plantation sequences and then you have these lively animated sequences kind of arbitrarily thrown in at times,” Sperb said. “The heart of it was supposed to be the Br’er Rabbit stories but it’s like, how do we pad it out into an hour-and-a-half narrative?”

The film has been controversial since its 1946 release for portraying Uncle Remus as a servile, stereotypical Uncle Tom and the post-War South as a kindly, righteous place. The film, Sperb noted, “is unrelentingly positive. [It’s] upbeat, everybody’s smiling, everybody’s happy, there’s not much tension.” He added, “Originally, Walt Disney got the rights for Song of the South in 1939; he wanted to capitalize on Gone With the Wind. It was actually a very smart business strategy, right? We’ll take Disney animation and sort of filter it in to the plantation musical context that was so popular in the 1930s.”

Sperb lectured for about 20 minutes, after which Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies Laurie Finke and Professor of American Studies Peter Rutkoff joined him on stage for a panel discussion about the film and its societal significance. Finke, who first watched the movie as a child, said Song of the South contained “this deep, deep nostalgia for something.”

“The father is absent and the only thing that heals is the return of the father,” Finke added. “So there’s a gender politics that goes hand-in-hand with the racial politics of this film.”

Natasha Ritsma, the Gallery’s curator of academic programs, attended graduate school at Indiana University with Sperb and invited him to campus to speak. After the panel wrapped up, she projected several clips from the film, including one from late in the movie in which Johnny’s mother patronizingly scolds Uncle Remus for talking to her son.

“A further tragedy is this privileged white kid is learning all these tricks to trick the poor white kids and it kind of makes Uncle Remus completely redundant by the end of the movie, because a new generation has learned the tricks,” Sperb said.

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