Scott D. Pierce: Disney+ shouldn’t stream racist ‘Song of the South.’ And it needs stronger warnings on other films.
(Richard Drew | AP file photo) The Walt Disney Co. logo appears on a screen above the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Aug. 28, 2017. Disney’s new streaming service, Disney+, is adding a disclaimer to "Dumbo," “Peter Pan” and other classics because they depict racist stereotypes, underscoring a challenge media companies face when they resurrect older movies in modern times.
Disney is being criticized for failing to include its racist 1946 movie “Song of the South” on its new streaming service. It’s also being criticized for deciding to include other animated films that have racist content, with a warning that is certainly insufficient.
And you thought connection errors were the biggest problem with Disney+.
“Song of the South” has no place on a streaming service that is aimed squarely at families, that children are accessing, that parents trust as a safe haven. (I’d argue there’s no such thing and parents should monitor everything their children watch, but that’s a different column.)
“Song of the South,” a mix of live-action and animation, has given Disney heartburn for decades because — let’s be clear — it’s racist. It depicts happy slaves and presents an idyllic view of the Southern plantation system. (Disney claims it’s set after emancipation, but that’s vague in the movie.) Characters speak in racist dialects. One of the animated sequences features a “tar baby.” Really.
Putting it back in general circulation would normalize racism. I foolishly got into a discussion about this on social media and could hardly restrain myself when one person — reeking of white privilege — said, “I’m not sure I see the issue with it.”
And objections to “Song of the South” did not arise out of present-day political correctness. There were protests when the film was released, and the NAACP voiced strong objections.
You could make the argument that “Song of the South” is no more racist than “Gone with the Wind,” but there is one major difference — “Gone With the Wind” isn’t animated. Children like cartoons. They watch them, even when they’re not appropriate. Like “South Park” and “Family Guy.” They’d watch “Song of the South,” and, no, it’s not appropriate.
Some are suggesting that “Song of the South” could stream with a strong warning at the beginning, but that’s naive. We all know warnings like that are routinely ignored.
But it’s historically significant, some argue. OK, fine. No one is suggesting that all copies of “Song of the South” should be burned. Put it in museums, next to the Confederate statues.
There are a lots of reasons to criticize Disney, but keeping a racist movie from poisoning the minds of children is not one of them.
But Disney isn’t scrubbing all the racism from Disney+. You can stream “Dumbo,” which includes a scene with crows — one named “Jim” — that are clearly offensive stereotypes. “Lady and the Tramp” and “The Aristocats” both contain racist Asian stereotypes. “Peter Pan” includes racist Native American stereotypes and the song “What Made the Red Man Red.”
(Full disclosure: I let my children — who are now 28, 28 and 32 — watch all those movies when they were young. Looking back, I wish I’d been more aware. I wouldn’t have forbidden them from watching, but I would have talked to them about what they were seeing. The same way we talked about the use of the term “colored” after we saw “Remember the Titans” — a Disney-produced movie set in 1971 Virginia — when they were kids.)
On Disney+, “Dumbo” and those other movies are preceded by this warning: “This program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions.” Again, while I question whether warnings have much effect, it’s hard to imagine that mild warning is going to make viewers pause at all.
I don’t have all the answers. In a perfect world, all parents would talk to their children about racism. Clearly, we don’t live in anything approaching a perfect world.
But if Disney is going to stream these movies and provide a warning, it ought to do something more in line with what Warner Bros. added to some of its cartoons when they were released on DVD. A warning that they “are products of their time” and “may depict some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that were commonplace in American society.”
I’d take out the word “may.” They were undeniably racist. “These depictions were wrong then and they’re wrong today,” WB’s warning continued.
Exactly. And Disney’s warning ought to be that strong, if not stronger.