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Wednesdays with Wade: Did the NAACP kill "Song of the South"?

Wednesdays with Wade: Did the NAACP kill "Song of the South"?

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This month is the 59th anniversary of the premiere of Disney's still controversial "Song of the South." Even though Disney has released the film in both Asian and European markets with no race riots occurring nor lengthy diatribes published condemning the film, the Walt Disney Company still hesitates to release the film in the United States. Despite the fact that -- for many years now -- there has been a healthy "blackmarket" selling bootleg copies to those who desperately want to see the film.

However, the story of why "Song of the South" is not available in the United States and the controversy sparked by its initial release is a saddening mixture of insensitivity, misunderstandings, and urban legends. It is a much more tangled web than many people realize.

Thanks to the extensive research work of Animation Historian Karl Cohen, whose book "Forbidden Animation" from McFarland Press devotes an entire chapter to the film's release, and the historical article on the making of the film by Disney Historian Jim Korkis entitled "Who's Afraid of the Song of the South?" that is scheduled to be printed early next year, I think I have enough understanding now to briefly discuss the connection of the NAACP in the controversy surrounding the film. I'd like to thank both those gentlemen for their groundbreaking research work.

It is important to remember that the "Song of the South" came out in 1946 and there was no balance of media images that featured the Huxtable family or John Shaft or George Jefferson or even Spike Lee. African-American performers often portrayed comic roles where they were characterized as lazy, slow-witted, easily scared, subserviant and worse.

Also remember that in 1946, the United States was a highly segregated country with separate facilities for non-whites. And that the brutal torture and lynching of African-Americans was so commonplace that the National Headquarters of the NAACP would fly a black flag out its window when news of a new lynching was confirmed.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was officially formed on February 12, 1909 (timed to coincide with Abraham Lincoln's one-hundredth birthday, although the name itself was not chosen until 1910). Appalled at the violence that was committed against African-American citizens including wide-spread lynchings as well as the "Jim Crow" laws that promoted racial discrimination and segregation, the organization contained both white and black members. In fact, white members held key positions on the board in the beginning.

One of its first protests against the portrayal of African-Americans in films was during the release of D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" (1915) that the NAACP felt glamorized the birth of the Ku Klux Klan and sparked race riots across the country. Despite all its nationwide attempts to have the film banned, "Birth of the Nation" became a highly successful film and it is still widely available today as an example of innovations in filmmaking even while its racial slant is criticized.

Throughout the 1940s the NAACP saw enormous growth in its membership, claiming nearly 500,000 members by 1946. However, it wasn't until 1948, that the NAACP was successful in pressuring President Harry Truman to sign an Executive Order banning discrimination by the Federal government.

When "Song of the South" was released, the NAACP was acting as a legislative and legal advocate, pushing unsuccessfully for a federal anti-lynching law and for an end to state-mandated segregation.

The NAACP attempted to create a "Hollywood Bureau" to convince Hollywood Studios to counter derogatory stereotypes of African Americans in motion pictures and to promote more realistic roles for black performers. There was extensive correspondence with producers such as David O. Selznick, Daryl F. Zanuck and other major studio moguls about such classic films as "Gone With the Wind," "Ox Bow Incident," "Pinky" and -- of course -- "Song of the South".

The Disney Studio had come under close scrutiny when it first announced its work on the stories of Uncle Remus.

Reading the first drafts for the screenplay prepared by a Southern author named Dalton Reymond, who

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sprinkled the script with stereotypes and terms that were offensive when referring to African Americans, The Hays Office sent a warning to Disney. It was non-negotiable that those terms needed to be removed but that overall the film was acceptable in meeting the demands of the Production Code. However it strongly suggested "... again the advisability of your taking counsel with some responsible Negro authorities concerning the overall acceptability, from the standpoint of Negroes, of this story ... Our Negro friends appear to be a bit critical of all motion picture stories which treat their people, and it may be that they will find in this story some material which may not be acceptable to them."

Disney hired Clarence Muse in 1944. Clarence Edouard Muse was born in 1889. He was an African-American lawyer, writer, director, composer, and actor. After high school he earned a degree in International Law from The Dickinson School of Law of Pennsylvania in 1911. Disgusted with the poor opportunities for Black lawyers he then selected a show business career. Muse appeared as an opera singer, minstrel show performer, vaudeville and Broadway actor; he also wrote songs, plays, and sketches. He appeared in very dignified roles in films made for all Black audiences and was so articulate as to be considered a spokesman for the Black community.

Muse quit Disney early in 1944 after his ideas to portray the African American characters as more dignified and prosperous were rejected. Once Muse left Disney, he began to inform people about the nature of the Disney feature while it was still in the rough draft outline and before radical leftist screenwriter, Maurice Rapf had been brought in to make the script more acceptable. Muse wrote letters to the editors of black publications a that Disney was going to depict Negroes in an inferior capacity and that the film was "detrimental to the cultural advancement of the Negro people." So the pump was already primed for disaster.

In later years, screenwriter Maurice Rapf remembered that Walt "had a theory that the reason why the film was picketed and particularly attacked by the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP was because the head of the local chapter was actor Clarence Muse. He knew that Walt Disney wanted to do a Remus story, and Muse wanted to play Remus. He was a standard serious black actor, but Disney got someone else. Now others said that couldn't be true, because Muse was a technical adviser on the film, though I think if that's true he didn't do a very good job advising."

Both Walter White, the executive secretary of the NAACP at the time, and June Blythe, the director of the American Council on Race Relations, had requested to see a treatment of Disney's "Song of the South" when the production was first announced. But they were ignored or politely given the run-around. Neither the NAACP nor the American Council on Race Relations had any opportunity to review the project before the press screening.

"Song of the South" had its premiere at Atlanta's Fox Theater on November 12, 1946. The location was chosen to tie in with author Joel Chandler Harris who besides writing several books of the Uncle Remus stories was also a popular writer on the "Atlanta Constitution."

However, "Song of the South's" African American cast members were not able to join Walt Disney and the white cast members at the movie's premiere in Atlanta, GA. because Atlanta was a segregated city. African Americans could not enter the movie theater or any other public buildings downtown. No hotel within reach of the theater would rent a room to James Baskett who portrayed Uncle Remus.

Walter White, the executive secretary of the NAACP, telegraphed major newspapers around the country with the following statement:

"The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People recognizes in 'Song of the South' remarkable artistic merit in the music and in the combination of living actors and the cartoon technique. It regrets, however, that in an effort neither to offend audiences in the north or south, the production helps to perpetuate a dangerously glorified picture of slavery. Making use of the beautiful Uncle Remus folklore, 'Song of the South' unfortunately gives the impression of an idyllic master-slave relationship which is a distortion of the facts."

However, White had not yet seen the film and based his statement on memos sent to him by two NAACP staff members in New York who had attended a press screening on November 20, 1946. Norma Jensen wrote that the film was "so artistically beautiful that it is difficult to be provoked over the clichés" but that the film did contain "all the clichés in the book." She did feel the Uncle Remus stories were commendable and she found "very touching" the relationship between the rich white boy and the black boy and white daughter of a tenant farmer but objected to scenes like the African Americans singing traditional songs since it was an offensive stereotype.

The other staff member, Hope Springarn, listed several objectionable images in the film, including the use of Negro dialect and the "Negroes singing outside the house" when the little white boy was dying.

Both Jensen and Springarn were also confused about the time of the story since it wasn't clear that it was taking place during the Reconstruction and not during the Plantation days of slavery. It was something that also confused other reviewers who from the tone of the film and the type of similar recent Hollywood movies assumed it must also be set during the time of slavery.

So based on the information in those memos, White released the official position of the NAACP in that telegram that was widely quoted in newspapers including the December 4, 1946 issue of "Variety", the trade journal of the motion picture industry.

Racially diverse groups of protesters organized to picket movie theaters in major American cities such as New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston. Yet the racial "harmony" demonstrated by these integrated groups of protesters was not common in most of the United States at the time and the philosophical make-up of these protestors resembled similar groups that protested and marched for civil rights in the Sixties. They were not so much protesting a particular incident or item but using that particular thing as a forum to protest a much larger injustice.

"We want films on Democracy not Slavery" and "Don't prejudice children's minds with films like this" were some of the slogans that decorated the signs of a racially diverse group of protesters who marched outside of the Paramount Theater in downtown Oakland, California. The protesters included African Americans and whites, men and women, old and young. The location of the protest was significant because in the 1940s, downtown Oakland was an elegant district with fancy hotels, expensive department stores, and several large-scale movie "palaces."

At the film's New York premiere in Times Square, dozens of black and white picketers, including African American servicemen recently returned from fighting in World War II, chanted:"We fought for Uncle Sam, not Uncle Tom." While local chapters of the NAACP called for a total boycott of the film. And The National Negro Congress declared that the film "is an insult to the Negro people because it uses offensive dialect; it portrays the Negro as a low, inferior servant; it glorifies slavery" and called on Black people to "run the picture out of the area."

The New York Tribune reported that at a press conference Walt Disney said that any real antagonism towards the film would come from radicals "who just love stirring up trouble whenever they can." Disney defended it as a "monument to the Negro race," pointing out that it was set after the Civil War and therefore could not be about slavery and "that the time had not yet come when Negro susceptibilities could be treated with as much delicacy as Hollywood reserves for, say, American Catholics."

New York Times film reviewer Bosley Crowther wrote that the movie was a "travesty on the antebellum South...no matter how much one argues that it's all childish fiction, anyhow, the master-and-slave relation is so lovingly regarded in your yarn, with the Negroes bowing and scraping and singing spirituals in the night that one might almost imagine that you figure Abe Lincoln made a mistake. Put down that mint julep, Mr. Disney."

So did the NAACP kill Disney's "Song of the South"? Not really, even though its initial criticism of the film may have been based on some faulty information. It did use the film as a rallying point that resulted in some changes in how films depicting African Americans were made.

Walt and the Disney Studio were not totally innocent either. The ambiguity of the story suggesting that all those happy, singing African Americans might indeed by slaves and Walt naively treating the film as another Disney fantasy (evident by those strong Mary Blair color stylings even in the live action scenes) rather than realizing that using real people would make people think it was all real added to the confusion and made defending the film more difficult than it should have been.

In a public interview, actor James Baskett who played Uncle Remus responded to the criticism by saying: "I believe that certain groups are doing my race more harm in seeking to create dissension than can ever possibly come out of the 'Song of the South'."

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