I was given all sorts of assignments while working as a writer in Disney's publishing department. One of my many assignments was to write what had become known as the Disney Holiday Story. These were comic strip continuities utilizing the Disney characters. Each of these stories would have a holiday theme and would run in newspapers from November to December 25th, when the story would conveniently conclude on Christmas Day.
I had already written stories based on the standard Disney characters including the wonderful Dalmatians from the film of the same name. But, I was getting bored with the typical holiday stuff, and wanted to try something new, different, and perhaps even a little dangerous. Could I possibly convince the powers that be at Disney to let me craft a story using the funny, clever and outrageous characters from "Song of the South"?
As you might have imagined, Disney was skittish about raising any awareness of a movie they had been trying to bury for years. And, while Disney's view of the south on which Joel Chandler Harris based his delightful stories might be considered naive, they were never malicious or offensive. I remember seeing "Song of the South" as a kid while growing up in Santa Barbara. I found the movie to be fun, charming, and it gave me even more reason to strive for a career in animation. Yet, even as a kid I noticed the film was given a scathing review in my parent's copy of Ebony Magazine, and Walt Disney was reviled as a racist.
Decades later, I assumed we all lived in a more enlighten society. The Civil Rights battles of the sixties had been won, and people of color had taken their rightful place in society. Black people in motion pictures were no longer porters and maids. Funny, confident, and edgy characters like Eddie Murphy had replaced bug eyed comedic actors like Mantan Moreland. It was now the eighties, and I hoped that Disney was willing to uncover the wonderful legacy kept hidden for so many years. Could delightful characters like Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Bear be enjoyed by a new generation? This was the question I would take to my bosses at Disney.
Some might think this a foolhardy idea. After all, Disney had kept this movie under wraps for a darn good reason. Black people found "Song of the South" offensive, right? How could I possibly counter that argument? Those old enough to have worked at the Mouse House back in the sixties might remember that Disney animated features were often loaned to employees for private screenings. Of course, the films were not meant for the general public. In order for my experiment to work, I had to fudge the rules a bit, but it was worth it. I borrowed a copy of Disney's "Song of the South," and filled a hall with dozens of black families. I threaded the 16mm film into my Bell and Howell projector, and the show began. The audience laughed, cried and cheered the film. It appeared the movie made by a "racist" named Walt Disney failed to enrage black people -- it delighted them. And, it seemed to me that Disney's fear factor was not real, but imagined.
It was now the eighties, and Disney was under a new forward thinking management. Perhaps my timing was right, or maybe I just got lucky. In any case, I was given the go ahead with my "Brer Rabbit Christmas Story." The story opens with the kids, Johnny and Jenny coming to Uncle Remus with a problem. The chances of a snowfall in the south are pretty slim, they say. How can they truly enjoy Christmas without snow? This gives Uncle Remus the perfect opportunity to spin another of his Brer Rabbit tales. It seems the clever rabbit had a similar complaint, and his quest for a white Christmas led him into a world of trouble. Not surprisingly, that trouble involved another run in with Brer Fox and Brer Bear. The story wraps up with Brer Rabbit escaping the clutches of his captors, and learning his lesson about the real meaning of Christmas. The story was submitted, and all appeared to be going well. I even removed the southern dialect from Uncle Remus, and only allowed the critters to retain their colorful dialogue. I was willing to give the illiterate former slave some "polish" as long as I could keep the rabbit, fox and bear in character. As you could imagine, the editors were aghast when they received the story. How could Disney submit such a racially insensitive story for publication? I wish I could have seen their faces when they were informed that the writer was black.
Today, Disney's "Song of the South" is still not available on DVD, although I have heard rumors that Disney might reconsider a release if the movie were to have an introduction that put the film into context. Only a few weeks ago we learned of the death of actress, Ruth Warwick who played Johnny's mother in the Disney film. In fact, most of the cast has since passed on. Yet, why bury the wonderful performances of James Baskett, Hattie McDaniel, and Ruth Warwick? Why deny animation fans some of the finest cartoon animation to ever come out of the Disney studio? Finally, hearing the voice performances of Johnnie Lee as Brer Rabbit, and Nick Stewart as Brer Bear, never fails to bring a smile to my face. America has come a long way since a little black kid sat in a movie theater in Santa Barbara and dreamed of a Disney career. Maybe it's not too much to hope that the Disney Company might one day get over its self-imposed fears, and finally finds its own Laughing Place.
Speaking of Laughing Places ... If you're in need of a laugh, then I suggest that you pick up a copy of Floyd's first collection of cartoons -- "Faster! Cheaper! The Flip Side of the Art of Animation" -- which is available for sale over at John Cawley's excellent www.cataroo.com website. Or if you'd prefer to pick up Norman's newest book -- "Son of Faster, Cheaper" -- click the image to the right. Which will take you over to Afrokids.com, where Floyd's latest collection of cartoons is also available for sale.