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Thoughts on Song of the South

The paragraphs below continue a discussion from a previous point. It must be established, for those not familiar with the film, that Song of the South is a controversial Disney film that has not been available on the market for many years because of the credible position that it is racist. Many people mistakenly believe that this film presents an unrealistic relationship between white masters and their black slaves in the American South. In point of fact, the film takes place after the war, and the black people  herein are free men who were formerly slaves. The implication would be that the particular former slave owners in the film treated the black people well enough during the times of slavery that relations between them are now peaceable, but of course, subjects like these are always touchy. The story proper deals with… you know what, I’ll link you to a synopsis for this part. The second of the two paragraphs below contains spoilers (after the jump,) but because the movie is pretty ordinary and kinda sucks, I wouldn’t really worry about it.

The real problem with this film, as I see it, is that the black people are portrayed in hurtful stereotypical ways. The way they use their eyes is the biggest part of it. Watch the way black people tend to be portrayed in most old films: eyes held wide all the time, especially when they talk, and stupid expressions on their faces. That was the stereotype of the day. Even modern actors who do stuff like this — portraying characters who proclaim with every gesture, “I don’t need no brain, dog! I am buh-lack!” — are embodying negative racial stereotypes and should be ashamed of themselves.

But I’d also like to dispute your contention that this is a great movie. It really isn’t. Even if you ignore the racist stereotypes as a product of their time, the thing that really sinks this movie is the clichéd story elements that are just in there to make the movie stupid. The mother who Doesn’t Understand, in capital letters because it’s such an overused convention. Oh, woe are the poor children, because the parent Doesn’t Understand! Why doesn’t she understand? Not because of any genuine motivation, but because a hack screenwriter thought those were the rules, and why should he question the rules? He’s not an intelligent man, after all.
“Uncle Remus, your stories give my boy hope in this difficult time when his father and I are getting divorced. Because this movie has to be excruciatingly conventional, I’m going to Misunderstand and forbid you to tell my boy any more of your stories.”
The pointlessness of this convention is only highlighted by the mother’s sudden, unexplained decision near the end that she will not Misunderstand anymore. Why does she just stop Misunderstanding out of the blue? Because it was a stupid plot point to begin with, and the rules say the authority figure who Doesn’t Understand must Learn the Error of His/Her Ways, in capitals again. Because for hack writers like these, the boy’s struggle with his parents’ divorce isn’t enough conflict; there has to be more conflict, and it has to be as painfully conventional as possible. We need people whose actions are clear-cut wrong, because we can’t have moral complexity, now can we? Mother needs to be in the wrong. What if the parents were getting a divorce and nobody misunderstood? What if we had to deal with the reality that parents sometimes get divorced and nobody is in the wrong? What if the movie centered on the boy’s personal growth in the face of an upsetting divorce rather than on some big injustice by his mother against him? We can’t have a movie like that, now can we? That might actually be (gasp) a good movie!

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