Karina Longworth Looks Back at Song of the South and the History of Disney

Photo: Stitcher

After a brief hiatus, You Must Remember This, Karina Longworth’s excellent film-history podcast, returns today with another study that rips yet another hole between the present and the past, further reinforcing the sense that we’re never too far away from where we once were.

The new six-episode mini-season finds Longworth unpacking Disney’s most notorious film: the 1946 hybrid live-action/animated film Song of the South. The film is historically notable on several fronts. To begin with, it featured the classic Disney song “Zip A Dee Doo Dah” and would later become the basis for the Splash Mountain ride. The film cast a black man, James Baskett, the first live-action performer ever to be hired by the company. And it was written in part by Maurice Rapf, a member of the Communist Party, who would be blacklisted shortly after the movie’s release.

But Song of the South is defined by its controversies. Set on a plantation in the Reconstruction-era American South, the film presented a rosy picture of black plantation workers and the conditions under which they existed during that era. The movie was met with protest during its original release, with critics arguing that the film papered over the complexities of black emancipation — and that, at worst, it effectively functioned as pernicious propaganda. Song of the South would be rereleased several times in the following decades, ultimately become a cultural artifact whose recurring presence would reflect fundamental things about the period during which it was reintroduced.

This mini-season of You Must Remember This, titled “Six Degrees of Song of the South,” leans into several ideas in the air right now: the ongoing frictions in the broader debate about race and representation, the fraught nature of progress, the place of Disney in American culture. Longworth spoke with Vulture about her perspective on Song of the South, pulling the series together, and the cyclical nature of history.

What drew you to focus on Song of the South?
Well, I had been doing some research for some people who were interested in doing a TV show about the black experience in Hollywood, as vague as that sounds. In the course of that research, I was looking through a few different things when I stumbled upon the fact that Song of the South had been written by a white screenwriter who was a communist and who would be blacklisted right after the film came out. It was something I didn’t know, and I began to wonder if there were other things I didn’t know about Song of the South — and then, of course, I realized pretty quickly there was a lot to dig into.

At that time, I was at a point where I didn’t have a contract to make more podcasts yet, and I wasn’t sure when I was going to do them again. I felt I was only going to make more episodes if I had a really strong idea, so finding out about this screenwriter, and then digging into more stories within this general area … I eventually realized there was a whole season right there.

What was your relationship to Song of the South beforehand?
I first saw it in the movie theater when I was about 6 years old. My mother used to take me to see every rereleased Disney film. Back in the ’80s, before people really had VCRs in every house, they would rerelease every Disney film in movie theaters. There would be like three or four of them in a year — like one year you’d get Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Song of the South. It was the only way to see them. My mother loved movies, and she loved going to the movies, so she started taking me to see these movies really early on, when I was about 2 years old, probably.

Why was your mom so taken with Disney movies in particular?
I think she just wanted to take me to the movies, you know? Back then, there wasn’t that much else that you could take a kid to.

In the first episode, you mentioned you saw Song of the South twice: once as a kid, and then once again a few months ago while researching the season. What’s it like revisiting a childhood experience with all the critical tools that you have as an adult?
Well, it’s completely different. When I first saw it as a 6-year-old, nobody prepared me with the idea that it would be controversial in any way. That’s because when it was rereleased in 1986, it was treated the least controversially than it had at any other time it was brought out into theaters, even compared to the ’40s and ’50s.

In the ’40s, the film was protested both while it was being made and when it was released. It wasn’t really protested when it was rereleased in 1956, but it was a little bit in 1972. And then it was definitely protested against in 1981, but not at all in 1986. That was peak Reagan America, and Song of the South had been successfully repositioned by then, I think, as a movie about racial tolerance. And that’s what my mom said it was.

I have to be honest: By 1986, as a white child growing up in a white family, I had not seen a lot of movies with black people in them at all. So I remember some conversation about how the movie was about how white people and black people can be friends, and certainly that remains something some people still take away from this movie.

But as an adult, seeing it much later in 2019 on a bootleg copy of the Japanese laser disc, which is the only format on which it was available —

Wait, that’s how you found it?
Yeah, totally. It’s not commercially available in the United States, and as far as I know right now, it’s not commercially available anywhere legally, although I could be wrong about that. Most of the bootleg digital files that you’ll find come from this Japanese laser disc.

So, rewatching the movie recently, I realized that I had not remembered much of the live-action portion of the movie at all. The only things that really stuck with me from that viewing as a 6-year-old were the songs and the cartoon characters. But two-thirds of the movie are live action, and of course, it’s a live-action drama about former slaves living on a plantation.

Karina Longworth. Photo: Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

What do you make of the fact that when the movie was rereleased in 1986, it met the least resistance relative to any other time it was recirculated?
Well, that’s what we focus on in the final episode of the season. It’s about the release of the film in 1981 and 1986, as well as the fact that they were developing the Splash Mountain ride, which is based on Song of the South.

I don’t really want to say too much because it’s all in the episode, but it was fascinating to see the difference in reception during different times. When it was first released in the ’40s, the New York Times and The New Yorker both ran extremely critical reviews of the film, in which they accused Walt Disney of wishing the Emancipation Proclamation had never happened. And then in the ’80s, almost none of the mainstream-newspaper reviews dealt with that at all. When there was protest about the film in newspapers, it was usually from underground newspapers, local African-American newspapers, stuff like that.

Every time I listen to another season of You Must Remember This, I’m always struck by how we seem to continuously loop back into the exact same struggles.
So, and I actually learned this term while researching the season, but some historians refer to what they call the “Thermidor Effect,” which basically means — and I’m putting this in sort of more concise language — that progress moves two steps forward, one step back. And so in times when we see progressive change, usually the culture will make a leap forward and then it’ll rubber-band and there will be a backlash.

You see this with the civil-rights movement in the ’60s, which kicks off the ’70s, which turn out to be more conservative, which go on to become the even more conservative ’80s. It’s kind of happening right now: We had the Obama administration, which gave us the first black president, advances in gay rights, along with a few other things, and then we really bounced back to a time of almost incredible — well, incredible to some of us — conservatism.

It is definitely all cyclical, and it keeps happening over and over again. If you are not somebody who wants to reclaim some lost path, and if you do want things to keep moving forward, I think you can just take solace in the fact that things do continue to move forward. It just happens very slowly, and sometimes it will feel like we’re moving further back before we can move ahead.

Do you have a strong relationship with Disney as a cultural institution?
You know, I saw those movies as a kid, and I continue to love some of them — like I’ve always loved Mary Poppins. But I’m not a big Disney “freak.” I know that there are people who just really love the brand, or they love Disneyland, or they love specific things about it. But that’s not been my experience. Also, I don’t have kids, so I never really had this thing of having a second generation to pass down the things that I watched as a kid.

How has making this season shifted your thinking on Disney?
I’m not sure if I necessarily had a fixed idea of what Disney was before doing this series, so I don’t know if the season shifted anything. But I had already done an episode about Walt Disney in the ’40s, so I knew quite a bit about his response to the animators’ strike at his studio, and how that pushed him to become personally more conservative and to kind of put that personal ethos into his business practice.

It was also fascinating to learn about Michael Eisner, who came in during the ’80s and whipped the corporate culture into shape to set up a resurgence with animated films like The Little Mermaid but also live-action films like Three Men and a Baby. The live-action Touchstone movies of the ’80s were fundamental to the company regaining its status as a Hollywood behemoth.

What do you have planned after this season?
The next thing we’re going to do, which will launch in early 2020, is a You Must Remember This spinoff where every story is written by a different freelance writer. We did a call for entries a few months ago and we ended up getting over 200 submissions. I selected eight writers, and they’re working right now to essentially make episodes in the style of You Must Remember This, but it’s their writing, and they’re narrating. So that’s going to be next January, and then I’m working on another season that will hopefully come out next summer.

Karina Longworth on Song of the South, Disney History