Had you visited a black home in the nineteen forties it would not be unusual to find a copy of Ebony Magazine on the family coffee table. I never paid much attention to the monthly publication but this particular issue caught my eye. A full page photograph of actors, James Baskett, Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten were featured next to an opinion piece on Walt Disney’s new motion picture Song of the South.
To the best of my knowledge this was the first time in my young life that I took issue with a magazine’s editorial and I regretted not having the writing chops to respond. Even though I was just a kid, I took issue with the editors for their unfair characterization of the film and Walt Disney in particular. I had recently seen Song of the South at our local theater and found the movie delightful. Had they even seen the same film, I wondered?
Many years passed, and when this young artist and others arrived at Walt Disney Studios in the Fifties, we found ourselves having access to the coveted Disney vaults. This meant any movie we wanted to see was suddenly available for screening. Naturally, one of our first choices was Song of the South. However, I took this a step farther. Because employees were able to check out 16mm prints on occasion, I set up a special screening of the Disney film in a local Los Angeles church. The screening of the Disney motion picture proved insightful. The African American audience absolutely loved the movie and even requested a second screening of the Disney classic.
I’ll admit I probably bring less baggage to the table than most. I was lucky enough to grow up in affluent, enlightened Southern California in the Forties and Fifties. My home town of Santa Barbara was hardly the segregated South and this unique environment influenced my view of society. My parents and grandparents welcomed people of all colors into their home so my perspective on race might not reflect the average African American’s view of society.
However, I am a cartoonist - not an academic, so this will not be an in depth analysis of ethnic insensitivity. However, I have had the pleasure of speaking with filmmakers and animation old timers about this rather touchy subject. It might be interesting to note that the funny images they put on paper and on the screen were there not to denigrate - but to entertain.
It’s a long time from Song of the South’s initial release and a magazine’s strident editorial. Yet even today the film continues to be mired in controversy and that’s a shame. I often remind people that the Disney movie is not a documentary on the American South.
The film remains a sweet and gentle tale of a kindly old gentleman helping a young boy through a very troubled time. The motion picture is also flavored with some of the most inspired cartoon animation ever put on the screen. Cynics may call the film, sappy. Those with a social or political agenda may call the movie racist. However, if you’re a fan of classic Disney storytelling, I guarantee you’ll not find a better film.