Dear World Science Fiction Convention: It’s fine to show Walt Disney’s 1946 film Song of the South as part of your program of interesting anime and animation not easily found on DVD or Netflix. It’s an interesting piece of work! And we’re grown-ups (and bright young people). We can look at controversial, problematic works and have intelligent conversations about them.
But this is not the smartest way you could be describing it, on your web page and in the printed program set for distribution at the con:
Song of the South is a 1946 American live-action/animated musical film produced by Walt Disney. The film is based on the Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris. The live actors provide a sentimental frame story, in which Uncle Remus relates the folk tales of the adventures of Br’er Rabbit and his friends. These anthropomorphic animal characters appear in animation. The hit song from the film was “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”, which won the 1947 Academy Award for Best Song and is frequently used as part of Disney’s montage themes, has become widely used in popular culture. The film inspired the Disney theme park attraction Splash Mountain. The film has never been released in its entirety on home video in the United States because of the subject matter, which Disney executives thought might be viewed by some as politically incorrect and racist toward black people, and is therefore subject to much controversy.Let’s be clear about something that this squib oddly fails to note. Song of the South’s racism isn’t some elusive, hard-to-pin-down subtext that Disney executives fret might be “viewed by some.” Song of the South is a blatantly, relentlessly, spectacularly racist piece of work.
It’s true, as Mike Glyer notes, that the film had some defenders among African-American journalists on its first release. It’s also true that it’s a movie replete with scenes full of (as Slate puts it) “embarrassingly racist” live-action portrayals of “smilin’, Massah-servin’ black folk.” Noting the film’s “offensively ‘idyllic’ master-slave relationship,” Time magazine said in 2009 that “there’s no denying the fact that by today’s standards, the film is rather racist.” And with typical bluntness, Cracked observes about the film’s singin’-and-dancin’ former slaves that “it’s as if someone made a children’s musical about Jews in post-WWII Germany that had a number titled ‘Hey! Nothing Bad Has Happened to Us, Ever.’”
This being the case, it would have been wise to plainly acknowledge it, instead of saying only that the film is out of circulation because “Disney executives thought might be viewed by some as politically incorrect.” (Bonus points for deploying our tired old friend “politically incorrect.” Yes, Disney executives are notoriously anxious about being dragged by Maoists into sessions of forced self-criticism. Why, you can barely get down the street in Hollywood for all the Red Guards trying to kidnap you.)
Bottom line: Given recent events in the SF world, for any Worldcon (much less one happening in a state that’s currently actively working to disenfranchise African-Americans) to screen this famously racist film while being disingenuous about its nature…is, to say the least, unwise. Showing it? Sure. Showing it while failing to plainly acknowledge its problems? Not your dumbest decision ever, dear Worldcon, but not exactly your smartest, either.
Next time we wonder why organized science-fiction fandom is so very, very white, even more so than adjacent precincts of the geek world like comics fandom or gaming, maybe we’ll recall this little piece of cluelessness. Which isn’t extraordinary. And that’s the problem.
UPDATE (Wednesday evening, 21 August): LoneStarCon 3 have announced that they won’t be showing the film. “We accept that while we fully intended to show the film in context, this was not adequately explained in the text published on our website and in our Pocket Program. Moreover, to continue showing the film in the light of the public concern expressed over the last few hours would send entirely the wrong messages about our event’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. We will therefore no longer be presenting this film as part of our program. […] We got this wrong, and we apologize unreservedly to anyone who has been offended, concerned, or in any way been given cause to doubt the welcome that LoneStarCon 3 will extend to all of our members next week.”