Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Joel Chandler Harris

The above dummies were a gift from Walt Disney to the Harris family at the time of the 1946 premiere of Song of the South.

Here is a very interesting article on the life of Joel Chandler Harris, creator of Uncle Remus, and his continuing presence in the Atlanta area. His home, The Wren's Nest, is a museum dedicated to his work and to storytelling. The museum also has a blog, which covers material about Harris and preservation issues in Atlanta.

While Song of the South has been controversial for years due to its racial content, Harris himself was targeted during the Civil Rights era for appropriating Black creations and commercializing them. The museum prefers to view Harris as a preservationist, someone who put the oral folklore of Black slaves in a permanent form and saved it for future generations.

While the museum is trying to rehabilitate Harris himself, there's seemingly no interest in rehabilitating the Disney film. Click on the poster below for the museum's view of Song of the South.

12 comments:

Thad said...

Interesting to see the focus in that piece. The bastardization of Harris' stories is so offensive, the film's racism doesn't register. Such is the way of the man.

Floyd Norman said...

I've dealt with racism of various kinds for decades.

Song of the South has always been the least of my worries.

Pete Emslie said...

As one who was lucky enough to have seen "Song of the South" several times on the big screen back when I was a kid, it certainly never came across as racist in the least. At the heart of this film is a story about a young white boy, lonely and confused by his parents' separation, being befriended by a sweet, compassionate old black man, who understands his plight and takes him under his wing. To this day I have never seen a film that has depicted such a beautiful friendship involving race relations better than "Song of the South".

Thad said...

The article is right that a problem is the interpretation of the Harris' stories. They were allegories of how the black slaves outsmarted their white masters, and were told in order to raise the esteem of enslaved blacks. So technically, they could be seen as subversive in this context. The Disney version is quite the opposite of this. The yarns are told to help out a troubled, rich white child in the film.

The film is comparable to a circus performer walking on burning coals and pretending they don't exist. While Song of the South isn't out-and-out racist like Birth of a Nation, it can still be seen as condescending towards black people. Uncle Remus and his relations live in abject poverty within sight of the grand mansion that is the white folks' residence. Yet Uncle Remus is happy, and seems to cares more about the well-being of the white child than the children in his own family. So in essence, Uncle Remus has been interpreted by the Disney people as the classic Uncle Tom stereotype.

A film like this is not judged on its own terms, unfortunately. Instead, the movie is seen as part of a larger whole, and becomes a symbol of a dark period in American cinema. So SOTS has to pay not only pay for its own crimes but for those of films like Gone With the Wind and Birth of a Nation. The irony is that both of them, films unquestionably more racist than SOTS (in Birth's instance, portraying blacks as out-and-out evil for wanting freedom), are available on DVD, unrated, without any film historian to explain the "subtext". SOTS isn't worthy of that, apparently.

Jamaal Bradley said...

A lot of the stories that Joel Chandler Harris put in the Uncle Remus books came all the way from Africa which have stronger roots than what "mr harris" gave them. I also believe a lot of the work was lost in translation by him mimicking slave dialect within his stories in the books. When I decided to be an animator I read up on all the negative portrayals of blacks in animation. I knew they existed because I grew up on them. Some of my favorite animators and story tellers have created some of the most racist works for their time period. I don't know how it affected black people at that time , but when I saw it for the first time in the 80's (I am 32 now)no one told me about anything in the movie or that I would be offensive. It is something in your soul that tells you its wrong. You just feel it when you see it. And bottom line, I am sure there are few if any black people trying to preserve the history of black stereotypes as works of art. The people that collect "Mammy Dolls" "Black Face" movies and memorabilia are the same people trying to preserve SOTS. I have the movie on VHS as well as all the WB stereotype cartoons, Tex Avery, Tom and Jerry and a few others. This is only to remind me to always strive to make something different with my work and let my children learn from it as well..NOT to showcase as classic work. Its America so people will do what they will.

Steve Schnier said...

SOTS was never on my list of favorite movies. I've seen it a couple of times and offensive or not, I wouldn't recommend it as a film on any level, animated or not.

I think that if we removed the label of "RACIST" from SOTS, it would eventually fade away - a victim of its own mediocrity.

That isn't to say that we should not remain vigilant against racism or hatred - but SONG OF THE SOUTH? Puh-lease...

Pete Emslie said...

"The Disney version is quite the opposite of this. The yarns are told to help out a troubled, rich white child in the film."

When we first see Uncle Remus in the film, he is telling his stories to a group of young black kids. He knows they have a rough road ahead of them, so he is trying to prepare them for that struggle with these little life lessons in the form of the Br'er Rabbit tales. When he comes upon little Johnny in the woods, obviously upset and lonely, why should he deny this young white boy these same lessons? The fact that he so generously goes out of his way to help him is what gives the film its heart - that a strong bond of friendship can cut across the barrier of race in such turbulent times as depicted. This is the message I responded to as a kid seeing this film for the first time, and in the many times through the years I've seen it since. I maintain that it is a beautiful film that should be freely available to see today.

Thad said...

And yet, James Baskett, the star of the film, was denied admittance to the premiere of the movie in Atlanta. Some progressiveness.

Pete Emslie said...

I wasn't aware of that, but I'll grant you that's a very tragic irony and sad sign of the times. However, I'd place the blame for that at the feet of Georgia law, not Walt Disney.

J. J. Hunsecker said...

When we first see Uncle Remus in the film, he is telling his stories to a group of young black kids. He knows they have a rough road ahead of them, so he is trying to prepare them for that struggle with these little life lessons in the form of the Br'er Rabbit tales. When he comes upon little Johnny in the woods, obviously upset and lonely, why should he deny this young white boy these same lessons? The fact that he so generously goes out of his way to help him is what gives the film its heart - that a strong bond of friendship can cut across the barrier of race in such turbulent times as depicted. This is the message I responded to as a kid seeing this film for the first time, and in the many times through the years I've seen it since. I maintain that it is a beautiful film that should be freely available to see today.

Hi Pete,

I certainly don't want to take away from your enjoyment of Song of the South, but I just wanted to make a few points.

As I recall, there is a brief scene of Uncle Remus telling black children one of his stories. (As had been mentioned before, the original Harris stories were about black slaves outsmarting their white masters, the context of which is missing from the Disney version. So those black children in the film are simply getting an entertaining story from Remus, not a lesson on racial pride.) However, most of Remus's devotion is to the rich white boy Johnny. For most black audiences, this makes him the Uncle Tom stereotype, a black character who is more devoted to the well being of the white characters.

The black child Toby, who is the side kick of the Bobby Driscoll character Johnny, is played for comic relief, while Johnny is played for sympathy. The scenes with Uncle Remus and Toby usually have Remus scolding Toby for his foolishness, yet Remus dotes on Johnny with the love of an angel. You can see why some would find Remus an Uncle Tom, can't you?

Lastly, I wanted to quote to you from a book called "Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks" by Donald Bogle, "Remus's mirth, like tom's contentment...has always been used to indicate the black man's satisfaction with the system and his place in it."

Remus, despite living in grinding poverty within yards of the opulent mansion of his bosses, is always kind, stoic, generous, supplicating, but above all HAPPY in his situation. He actually says, "Everything is satisfactual." Most black audiences find this insulting.

Jenny said...

"The yarns are told to help out a troubled, rich white child in the film."

They're ALSO told to help out a dirt-poor, white girl from the wrong side of the tracks who's as ostracized as anyone could be.

My feelings about the film are the same as Leonard Maltin's and Pete Emslie's. And whatever else it is it's in no way "mediocre".

J. J. Hunsecker said...

They're ALSO told to help out a dirt-poor, white girl from the wrong side of the tracks who's as ostracized as anyone could be.

As depicted in the movie, the poor white girls problems derive from her boorish brothers, not with being "ostracized" by society. Even if she was, the main focus of Song of the South is the relationship between the lonely white boy Johnny and Uncle Remus, and Remus's stories are mostly to help out poor little rich Johnny.