Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Planned Release Of Song of The South From Purgatory Now Nixed

We've been waiting for over a year for the supposedly imminent DVD, all of us believing that Disney's long absent, politically contentious, Uncle Remus film The Song of the South was finally going to be rereleased. It was exciting - the film has some wonderful, wonderful animation and really deserves broad circulation.

And then the news broke that Bob Iger, CEO of Disney, sat down with the film and nixed any release outright.

Why? The Song of the South is considered racist. Let's just suppose it is racist, for the sake of an argument, and the very simple question becomes - is that reason enough to not release it? Judging from the shelves in my local videostore it isn't.

The film is 60 years old, which enables that old get-out clause: the film should be understood within "a historical context". I thought that might be cover enough to get the film past the Disney think-police, certainly when the DVD could be counted on for solid, if likely not spectacular sales. Until the idea ran into Iger, it seems I was right. Plans to release the film under the Disney Treasures banner had been steadily advancing for quite some time.

Earlier in the month, Wal-Mart bit the bullet and piled copies of Brokeback Mountain high on their shelves. Its a film with an ideology as offensive to many as South's supposed racism is to others. I'd like to think there's an underlying, liberal leaning tide that has informed both of these decisions, but I do think I might be getting a little optimistic to do so. Perhaps it is simply hypocrisy. Perhaps the governing factors in each case are simply financial.

Mark Evanier quotes Iger on the subject, speaking at a shareholders meeting. "Owing to the sensitivity that exists in our culture, balancing it with the desire to maybe increase our earnings a bit but never putting that in front of what we thought were our ethics and our integrity, we've made the decision not to re-release it. [This is] not a decision that is made forever. I imagine this is going to continue to come up but for now, we simply don't have plans to bring it back because of the sensitivities that I mentioned."

Note that there's no suggestion these sensitivites belong to Iger, or even the shareholders he is addressing, but to "our culture" in general.

You can download the audio of the entire meeting from a page headed "Walt Disney Investor Relations".

Investor Relations. Not Race Relations. Just a reminder of who Iger was really thinking about.

So, it seems to come down to fear of controversy. I dare say that's why Wal-Mart made their decision too. They decided which option would generate the least controversy, or which would leave somebody else to take all of the flak.

In the Brokeback case, Wal-Mart would very likely take less heat than the filmmakers for the film's existence, but only they could be blamed if they didn't carry it in their stores. Furthermore, maybe they weighed up which possible group of protestors would be the most vocal, or crash into their public relations the most spectacularly.

I think that the Song of the South can be said, in all fairness, to contain some stereotyped characters. Race is part of the stereotyping, and as such, the film might be considered very offensive. Of course, there are more stereotypes in cinema than it would ever be possible to acknowledge in passing, let alone count. You certainly couldn't remove them all from the market place. Even starting only with those in the other films of the Disney film library would be a massive undertaking.

Even while many sterotypes are not racially based, they could all be called insidious, in their fashion. They all reduce humanity to cardboard cutouts, a few signifiers tacked onto a cypher, free of any inner life or depth of characterisation at all.

Maybe the history of race related problems suggest we should pay closer attention to those stereotypes and caricatures that depend on racial characteristics, but maybe, when that is what appears to be happening, there's actually a fear - a racist fear, no less - driving the defensiveness.

Is The Song of the South really getting canned because Bob Iger has a racist fear of Black America?

1 comment:

Uncle Tom Cardwell said...

"Zippedy Doo Dah" = Best Disney song ever.