Hmm. Well, merlin, my friend, I don't think I would go so far as to deny racism in the case of SOTS. It's not overtly or aggressively racist; this much is true. However, the film, and its portrayal of African Americans is, shall we say, problematic. The more scholarly criticisms of the film (which we should definitely listen to and seriously consider, because they are valuable) point out what could be called benign racism at its heart. A kinder, gentler, friendlier racism is still racism, but it's a type that's far more insidious than the overt kind, because it's much easier to digest and accept. (A spoonful of sugar helps not only medicine go down; it helps poison go down, too.)
Originally Posted by merlinjones
The Snopes article on the film is helpful in this regard:
Although some Blacks have always been uneasy about the minstrel tradition of the Uncle Remus stories, the major objections to Song of the South had to do with the live action portions. The film has been criticized both for "making slavery appear pleasant" and "pretending slavery didn't exist," even though the film (like Harris' original collection of stories) is set after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. Still, as folklorist Patricia A. Turner writes:
Disney's 20th century re-creation of Harris's frame story is much more heinous than the original. The days on the plantation located in "the United States of Georgia" begin and end with unsupervised Blacks singing songs about their wonderful home as they march to and from the fields. Disney and company made no attempt to render the music in the style of the spirituals and work songs that would have been sung during this era. They provided no indication regarding the status of the Blacks on the plantation. Joel Chandler Harris set his stories in the post-slavery era, but Disney's version seems to take place during a surreal time when Blacks lived on slave quarters on a plantation, worked diligently for no visible reward and considered Atlanta a viable place for an old Black man to set out for.
Kind old Uncle Remus caters to the needs of the young white boy whose father has inexplicably left him and his mother at the plantation. An obviously ill-kept Black child of the same age named Toby is assigned to look after the white boy, Johnny. Although Toby makes one reference to his "ma," his parents are nowhere to be seen. The African-American adults in the film pay attention to him only when he neglects his responsibilities as Johnny's playmate-keeper. He is up before Johnny in the morning in order to bring his white charge water to wash with and keep him entertained.
The boys befriend a little blond girl, Ginny, whose family clearly represents the neighborhood's white trash. Although Johnny coaxes his mother into inviting Ginny to his fancy birthday party at the big house, Toby is curiously absent from the party scenes. Toby is good enough to catch frogs with, but not good enough to have birthday cake with. When Toby and Johnny are with Uncle Remus, the gray-haired Black man directs most of his attention to the white child. Thus Blacks on the plantation are seen as willingly subservient to the whites to the extent that they overlook the needs of their own children. When Johnny's mother threatens to keep her son away from the old gentleman's cabin, Uncle Remus is so hurt that he starts to run away. In the world that Disney made, the Blacks sublimate their own lives in order to be better servants to the white family. If Disney had truly understood the message of the tales he animated so delightfully, he would have realized the extent of distortion of the frame story.
I think these two scholarly works are worthy (if lengthy) reads on the topic of the film as well:
Song of the South and the Changing Complexion of American Film in the 1940s
A frown upside down / the affective, cultural and convergence histories of Disney's "Song of the South" (1946)
I thought this passage from the first piece was especially noteworthy -
Although this film met the requirements for mythifying African-American servants, it failed to satisfy almost everything else--including audience members. Alice Walker, a native of Joel Chandler Harris' hometown of Eatonton, Georgia, recalls recognizing that appropriation of the Remus tales from the black storyteller even as a young child in 1946:
Our whole town turned out for this movie: black children and their parents in the colored section, white children and their parents in the white section.
Uncle Remus in the movie saw fit to ignore, basically, his own children and grandchildren in order to pass on our heritage--indeed, our birthright--to patronizing white children who seemed to regard him as a kind of talking teddy bear.
I don't know how old I was when I saw this film--probably eight or nine--but I experienced it as a vast alienation, not only from the likes of Uncle Remus--in whom I saw aspects of my father, my mother, in fact all black people I knew who told these stories--but also from the stories themselves, which, passed into the context of white people's creation, I perceived as meaningless. So there I was, at an early age, separated from my own folk culture by an invention.
As James Snead notes, Alice Walker wasn't alone in her contempt for this Uncle Remus:
The image of the benign old slave darky--certainly abnormal after the Civil War, and probably also before it--was nothing short of insulting in 1946, a time when blacks returning from service in World War II were just beginning to consolidate their hard-fought gains and agitate for their rightful place in American society. At the film's New York premiere in Times Square, dozens of black and white pickets chanted, "We fought for Uncle Sam, not Uncle Tom," while the NAACP called for a total boycott of the film, and the National Negro Congress called on black people to "run the picture out of the area."
That was in 1946. I think it's fair to say that SOTS is a film that has always been problematic, and will remain so forever.