Teaching ‘Song of the South’ – Part 2: History Lesson

Once I’d determined that there was no getting out of covering Song of the South in my Disney class [see previous post], I had to grapple with how to cover it…. in four-and-a-half hours… including the screening.

I felt strongly that I wanted to present the film in its historic context — not to excuse it — to show it as a key example of the pervasive problem of racially stereotyped representations in Hollywood cinema. Of course there are entire courses dealing with racial representations in cinema, but not in my department, and thus my students had very little experience in parsing such issues. I had to prime them somehow, but I had so very little time.

Crash Course in Cinematic Racism

I found myself doing a crash-course-in-cinematic-racism. Ugh. The thing is, when you take some concentrated time to really look at this history, you do want to pound your head against the wall going, “How were we so stupid?” Then, as I was doing this prep, the #OscarsSoWhite thing began, and Meryll Streep said we’re all African — Meryll! — and “How are we still so stupid?” As quoted in The Atlantic, Prof. Todd Boyd of USC noted that this current situation “simply reflects the past.” So after giving this a lot of mulling over, I decided to share my awkward crash-course-in-cinematic-racism… on Oscars day (that was an accident of timing).

I opened my Song of the South lecture with an overview of American cinema through 1946. Rather than present a parade of this alarming material, I focused instead on reactions and responses. It felt like the right thing to do, but you may question me on that. So I talked about Birth of a Nation in the context of it inspiring the NAACP, and Oscar Micheaux‘s Within Our Gates (1920), which led to talking about Micheaux in general and the separate African American film industry. Not one of my students had ever even heard that such a thing existed.

Then we moved on to “happy slave” representations, and Gone with the Wind — thank you, TCM for this poignant and insightful piece featuring Charles S. Dutton, Donald Bogle, and Richard Wesley.

Then on to the NAACP-Hollywood agreement of 1942. Which may or may not have led to the  “all-black-cast,” mainstream, Hollywood musicals of 1943.

CABIN IN THE SKY (Minnelli, MGM, 1943) — celebration or exploitation of jazz culture? Is it possible to be both?

Cabin in the Sky (Minnelli, MGM, 1943) might seem off-topic leading up to Song of the South (which isn’t actually a musical), but there was method in my madness for including it, which I will get back to.

Cabin is an interesting case. Not only does it boast the MGM-Arthur Freed-Vincent Minnelli pedigree, but it was based on the NY stage hit directed by George Balanchine with music by Vernon Duke (both Russian expats), and a cast of star performers — including Ethel Waters and Lena Horne — from the (segregated) Cotton Club. The film version throws in Louis Armstrong, Rex Ingram, and Duke Ellington, and was Minnelli’s directorial debut.

As his daughter, Liza Minnelli, characterizes it, this was a bold and brave move on her father’s partCabin in the Sky. But is it a celebration or exploitation of jazz culture? Is it possible to be both? Minnelli and cinematographer, Sidney Wagner, do seem to genuinely respect and admire their cast. They are given the full, MGM, high-key, glamour treatment. And scenes linger lovingly on the musical and dance performances. The story, however, features those same dice-throwing, home-wrecking stereotypes that turn up again and again in the written-by-whites-all-black musicals [Carmen Jones, Porgy and Bess].

I have to confess, as a jazz-lover, I love this movie, simply because it’s full of the performers I adore. When I first saw it as a girl, the story just seemed silly to me. But seeing it years later, I realized: “Oh yeah, if there were a wide range of representations out there this might not be so awfully insulting, but there aren’t.” [Intriguingly, the stage version is currently being revived and reworked as a concert series under the direction of Ruben Santiago-Hudson.]

After a Cabin clip, I showed a good 30 minutes worth of clips from the terrific documentary, The Nicholas Brothers Story, because they talk about segregation at The Cotton Club, Broadway, and Hollywood, and because watching their brilliant performance in Stormy Weather (Stone, 20th-Fox, 1943), and then learning that they were not allowed to dance on screen with whites, shocks the daylights out of students born after 1990.

Racism in American Animation is Really Scary Stuff

birth of an industryI had to cover racism in American animation because, although Song is more live-action than animation, Disney was, in 1946, an animation studio. Previously, they had only dabbled in live-action, and did not have hundreds of actors, writers, cinematographers, set decorators, costume designers, etc. from different backgrounds, under contract to interact with daily. They were a bunch of young white guys, who worked with other young white guys, drawing fantasies all day. They even kept their female employees segregated in Ink and Paint.

After having done just a soupçon of research, I can tell you, racism in animation is even more soul-crushingly depressing than you imagine. Several well-researched books on the topic have been published recently.[1]

Hollywood Censors Its Animation
Page from LOOK magazine article, “Hollywood Censors Its Animation,” January 17, 1939

Animation was, like feature films, policed by the Production Code Administration, but, you know… the PCA was run by stupid white men. As Look magazine reported in 1939, they were more concerned with nudity (of a cow!) and religious references than racial ones (see page image, right).

In preparation, I looked at the notorious “Censored Eleven” Warner Brothers cartoons, and offenders from The Fleischer Brothers, Walter Lanz, and MGM. By “looked at” I mean I watched less than a minute of most of them. I couldn’t take more. In case you’re curious: no, they aren’t funny. They are just plain lame at best and downright cruel in many cases. I’m not including titles here because — trust me, don’t try this at home! Watching several of these back to back made me feel wretched and dejected.

There was no way I was going to show them to my class. I wanted to un-see them myself. I settled for showing one obnoxious cartoon to the class and listing titles of dozens more, to evoke the scale of it all. Which one did I show?

“Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs” (Clampett, 1943, Merrie Melodies)

(I know: Really? That title was okay, PCA?). Not only is it a spoof of Disney’s Snow White, but it turns out to have a rather complicated back-story, and its legacy is  still hotly debated in the animation-afficiando-sphere.

Coal Black Character Sheet
Character design for Warner Brothers, Merrie Melody, “Coal Black” by Bob Clampett, 1943

The story goes that jazz-lover Clampett attended numerous live jazz performances around L.A., and counted many local musicians among his friends. After attending a performance of Duke Ellington’s stage revue, Jump for Joy, he went backstage where members of the cast asked him why there weren’t any “black” characters in the WB cartoons. He subsequently brought them in to collaborate on what became “Coal Black.” Carl Stalling’s contract allowed for no guest musicians on Merrie Melodies, so they were not allowed to provide the score, but they did supply voices and horn accompaniment. The result? Possibly not as offensive as many of the others, but that’s only because the others are that bad.

The NAACP was not amused. (Me neither. It’s lame and sad.) But this brings me back to that Cabin in the Sky question: celebration? exploitation? Clearly the best way for white people to celebrate African American culture would be to let them make their own features and cartoons. 

Ok – Chris Rock is killing me! Gotta go.  — Part 3 will finally be about the film itself, and what I learned….

——————————–

Notes:

(1) For history of racism in animation see:

Sammond, Nicholas. Birth of an Industry: Blackface, Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation. Duke University Press, 2015.

Lehman, Christopher. The Colored Cartoon: Black Presentation in American Animated Short Film: 1907-1954. University of Massachusetts Press, 2009.

Two books pertaining to and doing a much better job of discussing this history than I:

Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. Bloomsbury Academic, 2001.

Gabbard, Krin. Jammin’ at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema. University of Chicago Press, 1996.

OscarsSoWhite: Interesting Articles:

The New Yorker, The Oscar Whiteness Machine”

The Atlantic, “The Missing Piece of the Oscars Diversity Conversation”

Variety, “Black Artists Matter: An Oral History of Race and the Oscars”

Variety, “Diversity in Film, TV: A Look Back at History.” Feb. 23, 2016

The Verge, “The Oscars Whiteness Problem Runs Deeper Than The Actors”

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