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November 20, 2002
Walt Disney and the memory hole Disney has been around since the 1920s. The mighty Disney corporation started out in a very different time. They could hardly be held liable for the sin of having failed to anticipate the social attitudes and norms that would come a half century later.
Nonetheless, they have at least a couple of classic movies specifically with racial issues that are an embarassment to the modern company, most notably the 1946 film Song of the South. Uncle Walt wasn't trying to be offensive- hey, he's making family films. He certainly intended to be promoting racial understanding, and all that nice stuff. Ol' Uncle Remus provides the comfort and words of wisdom as the little white boy tries to deal with the breakup of his parents.
The basic problem was that the film is telling Uncle Remus stories, glossing right over the issues with black folks right happy to be down on the plantation. There's just no getting around the issues in modern America, and the movie simply isn't available here. They'd just as soon forget it. It is apparently available by an import on Amazon through German sources, though. It is also available for downloading on the net.
The problem comes out in the part that they can't even try to suppress: the hit single. "Zip a Dee Doo Dah" is one of the half dozen most popular songs in the history of Disney films. It won the Oscar for best song in a motion picture- and quite deservedly so.
The basic problematic happy negroes down on the plantation theme comes popping out of the narration before the singing even starts:
It was one of them zip-a-dee-doo-dah days,
The kind of a day where you can't hardly open your mouth without a song falling right out of it!
Well, there you go. Racist stereotypes of black folks with that natural rhythm. Nothing else can possibly redeem this, not the humanity of Uncle Remus, not the trusting bond with little Johnny holding hands with the surrogate father figure. That image alone must have constituted radical commie race mixing to many folks in 1946. What do you want? No explanation can be offered once someone has determined that they have been offended. File this under "this is what you get for trying to be nice."
Perhaps Disney would get less grief at this point to put the damned thing out than they do for suppressing it. I find it difficult to believe that most black folks would seriously be offended by the actual content of this, despite the bleeting of the NAACP. How offensive would kindly Uncle Remus be to kids raised on Richard Pryor records- much less gangster rap? Clue up, people. There's great historical value in this film.
Another little entry in the Disney racial sweepstakes comes in the classic 1940 Fantasia. This one is just a small bit, and surely not maliciously intended, but lacking the distinctly noble tint of the Song of the South. Nonetheless, it is a fascinating bit of Disney trivia.
Basically, the questionable part amounts to a few seconds of a black centaur acting as servant to the white centaurs in the "Pastoral Symphony" segment, shining their hooves. The trivia page for the movie on the IMDB has fascinating details about how the film has been quietly edited and re-edited since the segment was deemed inappropriate in the 1960s. The good folks at The Memory Hole website have a still image of the offensive scene, along with more details.
Something comes across to me as just slightly Orwellian about this re-writing of history. Even the lauded 60th anniversary "uncut" restored DVD does not in fact have this original bit. It's a minor point, I know, but the film was what it was. It is a historical document. Just put the thing out as it was, and shut up about it. This corporate dishonesty should bother you more than the very minor racial offenses.
This all also amounts to another argument for re-claiming classic copyright limitations. These films both should have long since passed into the public domain, to be circulated by people with no vested interest in promoting the modern Disney corporate image.