Alongside the global pandemic of Coronavirus, another virus has swept the Western World. This is the virus of apologising for works of art (brands as well as comedy) that those around the boardroom tables have finally realised are racist, or at the very least could be perceived to be racist. This was done against the backdrop of the world collectively saying Black Lives Matter – following the well publicised murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA on May 25.
Floyd was not the first Black person to be killed by the police in 2020, but the presence of the video interrupting the daily briefings from the political leaders and our mundane lockdown timelines and on social media awakened people. Unlike other murders, this was one no one could ignore, regardless of what continent you were – race, colour or creed.
noun [ U ]
UK (US virtue signaling)
/ˈvɜː.tʃuː ˌsɪɡ.nəl.ɪŋ/ US
an attempt to show other people that you are a good person, for example by expressing opinions that will be acceptable to them, especially on social media:
Virtue signalling is the popular modern habit of indicating that one has virtue merely by expressing disgust or favour for certain political ideas or cultural happenings.
Examples of the collective realisation (or some may say virtual signalling) include the following, but the list is not exhaustive:
Quaker Oats announcing the retirement of the Aunt Jemima brand – the fact people had issues with the image of a happy, smiling mammy aka an enslaved Black woman being used to sell products for over 150 years prior to this moment was ignored.
Mars announcing it will evaluate changing Uncle Ben’s brand image As a professional marketer, I am somewhat surprised that these brands have been steadfast in keeping hold of these brand elements for so long. It did make me question the brand values and consequently, they are brands I have never consumed as they didn’t sit well with me, and honestly what is the point of boil in the bag rice. When using a pot and water or rice cooker can
In addition Gone with the Wind (one of my all time favourite films) was pulled from HBO as it was felt it reinforced racist tropes (with a view to adding a warning that the film contains antiquated imagery). Once again the criticism of Gone with the Wind dates back to when the film was made so not sure why in big old 2020, people now view it as problematic. Tomes have been written about the treatment of Hattie McDaniel (the first Black woman to win an Oscar) as well as the representation of slavery and enslaved people on the silver screen.
This brings me onto the purpose of this post, so apologies for the long introduction. During my reading around how media owners respond to questions about racism, I was reminded of the controversial Disney film, Song of the South. It was Disney’s first live action/ animated film with a Black lead UNTIL The Princess and the Frog and premiered in 1946.
I consequently made it my mission to find this film, I had only watched once at an 80s primary school. But I do remember I liked it, and its signature song Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah, sung by James Baskett has endured for 74 years and counting.
I say a mission, because Disney has not re-released this film since the 80s, and it’s not on any streaming sites, including Disney+ (despite the remaining Disney back catalogue being on this platform). It was also unavailable on YouTube in its entirety, so I had to resort to other channels to find it. And find it I did
On rewatching Song of the South, I found it interesting for a variety of reasons. On face value the film was harmless. I was amazed at the technical craft in the juxtaposition of the live action with the animated Br’er Rabbit etc. The only other films that stick out where this happened were Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. This is not to say that it hadn’t happened in other films, but recalling every film I have watched over my life span would be a challenge.
The actual film’s storyline isn’t that great (Johnny the little boy is getting bullied and his only friend is Uncle Remus). In addition, my modern day standards Uncle Remus comes across very simple and nice, as in reality if he told the annoying child about himself he would have been punished. His entire being seems to be to fulfil the role of the Magical Negro that Black actors often fulfil (there to come to the aid of the White protagonist) as illustrated in a lot of Morgan Freeman films. Uncle Remus’s relationship with Johnny (the little boy) seemed to be one of friends – except Johnny was in fact Uncle Remus’ sort of employer and a scapegoat. When Johnny did something wrong it is Uncle Remus who got in trouble. Three times during the running time of this film, and each time I’m thinking nah this isn’t right.
The fact it had Hattie McDaniel in it as well is interesting. On my first watching, I was not old enough to have seen Gone With the Wind. Her role here lacked depth, even though the character appeared to be wearing the same clothes. I can’t remember her character’s name and she seemed to be a secondary role, but given the fact the Black cast outnumbered the Whites she is the only other adult to actually have a speaking part. The other Black adult characters seemed to be living a jolly old life on the plantation singing along as they returned from the fields. What is really sad to me regarding McDaniel is that she was an Oscar winning actress doing a role less than the one she was renowned for 7 years later. It is a damning indictment of Hollywood that she wasn’t able to get critically acclaimed roles, unlike her co-star Vivien Leigh (who won awards for her role in A Streetcar named Desire).
Turning to the Br’er Rabbit stories and the repeated times Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah was sung, they reinforced that one should be happy with your lot, and don’t run away. The fact these were being recited by Uncle Remus is why it is galling.
In terms of enduring stories within the Disney cannon, the premise and narrative of this film isn’t great, but if Gone With the Wind can be brought back, as well as the gazillion versions of Tarzan, people should be allowed to see how advanced the cinematography was. It should, however, be caveated with the premise that it wasn’t right for its time.
I also heard that Disney will be reimagining the ride Splash Mountain, at Disney World, which plays the song. It will be relaunched as a Princess and the Frog ride.