May 16, 2010
Song of the South

This is a movie that you can’t buy for love or money. Disney hasn’t released it in the US because it’s supposed to be racially insensitive. It shows happy, contented blacks in a plantation setting. I thought it was pre-war, but Wikipedia insists that it’s set sometime during the Northern occupation of the South, aka, Reconstruction.

The movie actually has two parts. The first is the frame story. A young boy and his mother go to a plantation near Atlanta, while his father, a newspaper editor, remains at home. The mother and father are apparently having marital problems, the exact nature of which are never specified. The boy has a number of run-ins with various characters, and meets Uncle Remus, who tells him stories about Brer Rabbit and his friends.

Brer Rabbit is what I was taught, back in the dim, dark days when I took the introductory anthropology course, a trickster. He’s always getting into scrapes, usually involving Brer Fox, and he manages to get out of them by using his wits. I suppose in a sense that the literary version of Brer Rabbit, in the stories by Joel Chandler Harris, is an ancestor or progenitor of Bugs Bunny.

So lets cut to the chase, why is it not in circulation? The reason given is that the portrayal of blacks is racially insensitive. Given that Gone With the Wind is allowed to circulate freely, that seems rather specious to me. I’m not going to say that there was not racism and all of the evils associated with slavery and its by-products present during the era of the film, both its production time (1946-8), and the narrative time (19th century), but there were probably ties between the races. These ties were not just slave/master relationships, but the ties that exist between parents, or parental surrogates, and children. At this point I can feel that I’m writing myself into deep water, but lets try to make this clear. Anyone who provides care for a child, especially if it is over a long period, and involves some measure of normal attention develops bonds of affection to that child, and the child also develops similar bonds. The residents of the house had these long relationships with Uncle Remus and the former house slaves, so it was possible for those bonds to develop.

I should admit, however, that there are scenes, the ones in which Uncle Remus is reprimanded, where I felt that there was an overtone of implied violence. That may be a projection on my part, and not actually present in the movie. At least you may not see it.

It may be that the story, which is essentially sentimental, ignores those elements because they are not really germane to the central issue of the plot, the importance of story as a means of education, and as a means of constructing the narrative of one’s life.

Stories are, in the view of many, including Aristotle in the Poetics, more instructive than reality, or history. Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, used stories, such as the Allegory of the Cave, or the story told by Diotima, to convey philosophical doctrine. The parables of Jesus convey theological doctrine about the kingdom of God, righteousness, and so on. As such they are to influence and shape our beliefs and conduct.

In another sense we tell stories to shape our lives, and give them a purpose and meaning. When my father came home and had dinner with the family, he would tell stories about his day at work. He was inevitably the hero, the guy who was always right about something. Perhaps in reaction to this I started telling myself different stories. In those I was rarely the hero, more likely the anti-hero, a Camusian/Beckettsian kind of guy. This overarching narrative shapes how I see the world, as a place of decline and misery, and paranoia. So our contrasting stories, our narratives, shape our view of the world, and may well shape our actions.

When Johnnie, played by Bobbie Driscoll, is deprived of the companionship and stories of Uncle Remus he is deprived of a means of learning how to deal with certain problems. An earlier story, that of Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby, had given him guidance on how to deal with a threat from some bullies. His deprivation leaves him without the moral guidance of the stories, and he falters as a result.

It is when the relationship with Uncle Remus is restored that he is able to re-integrate into the familial relationships, and the relationships of the plantation. The film ends with the animated characters appearing to the live action characters. The realm of story and imagination is thus re-integrated into the personal. This restoration of story is therapeutic.

As I said at the outset, you can’t find this at your local video store. You can find copies floating around on the Net, but I’ll leave it up to you to find sources.