GWTW, Song of the South, and race

the highest-grossing movie ever

Song of the South.Aunt Tempy
Hattie McDaniel as Aunt Tempy
When Gone With the Wind was temporarily shelved by HBO Max before returning with an intro by a black scholar, I knew I had to make a confession. I have actually never seen the movie. Ever.

Oh, I tried a couple times. After all, adjusting for inflation, the 1939 film is the highest-grossing movie ever. Its appearance on commercial television, in two parts in 1976, were both in the Top 10 of the highest-rated broadcasts of all-time.

But nope. It was frankly boring to me. I just didn’t give a damn about watching it.

The GWTW news reminded some of us about the indignities faced by Hattie McDaniel. She played “Mammy” in the movie, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Know that she became the FIRST African American to win an Oscar. “She and her escort were required to sit at a segregated table for two… The discrimination continued after the award ceremony as well as her white costars went to a ‘no-blacks’ club, where McDaniel was denied entry.”

She was philosophical about her movie roles. “Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one.”


Now, this very year, I DID finally see Hattie McDaniel in the movie Song of the South (1946), in which she played Aunt Tempy. “The kindhearted storyteller Uncle Remus tells [children] stories about trickster Br’er Rabbit, who outwits Br’er Fox and slow-witted Br’er Bear.”

Its controversial history is well known. Walter Francis White, the Executive Secretary, said in 1946 that the organization “recognizes in Song of the South remarkable artistic merit in the music and in the combination of living actors and the cartoon technique. It regrets, however, that in an effort neither to offend audiences in the north or south, the production helps to perpetuate a dangerously glorified picture of slavery. Making use of the beautiful Uncle Remus folklore, Song of the South, unfortunately, gives the impression of an idyllic master-slave relationship which is a distortion of the facts.”

A couple of clarifications. I never got the sense that the story took place during slavery, but rather during Reconstruction. Yes, Uncle Remus does the Magic Negro thing near the end, but it was the times. And the film itself was well done, as the NAACP chief noted, with the usual solid Disney animation and fine acting by James Baskett.

While the narrative of the Uncle Remus stories in cartoon form made me uncomfortable, I’ve seen so much worse. The Abraham scene in Holiday Inn (1942), which I wrote about seven years ago. Alas, the link no longer works. But A.O. Scott in his 2008 Critics’ Picks for the New York Times, provides a snippet.

Here’s something awful: Judy Garland in blackface in Everybody Sing (1938). Chuck Miller notes Warner Bros. cartoons that should stay out of circulation.

In that context, I didn’t find Song of the South nearly as offensive as I had built it up in my mind. Judge for yourself.

Film and race: Song of the South, Holiday Inn, Django Unchained

I had, in a bad way, a jaw-dropping reaction to the Lincoln’s Birthday segment of the 1942 movie Holiday Inn.

I had heard for a long time how awful and offensively racist D.W. Griffith’s landmark 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, was. It’s good that I saw it, but I’m glad it was as an adult so that I could appreciate it in the historic context in which it was made. I’m not much on banning movies, but there is something to be said about seeing it at the right point.

A couple of blog posts I’ve seen recently reminded me of this point. Ann from Tin and Sparkle used Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah for her ABC Wednesday post. I have never actually seen the 1946 Disney film Song of the South, and it has been quite difficult, at least for me, to get a chance to view it. The website dedicated to the movie describes the controversy. I think I’d be interested in seeing it. Incidentally, the very first version of Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah I ever owned, or maybe it was my sister’s album, was by the Jackson Five [LISTEN] from their 1969 debut, a swipe of a Phil Spector arrangement for Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans in 1963.

Conversely, about 15 years ago, I got to see the 1942 film Holiday Inn for the first time, which stars Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. I had, in a bad way, a jaw-dropping reaction to the Lincoln’s Birthday segment. SamuraiFrog had seen it recently and described the song “Abraham” as “the most bizarre outpouring of disturbing blackface [by Crosby, Marjorie Reynolds, and others] I’ve ever seen. Surprised to see that. I mean, I know it’s of the time and all that, but I just found it deeply, deeply unsettling.” Yeah, that was MY reaction, too, plus historically inaccurate portrayal of the 16th President, to boot. I’m just not ready to let my daughter see it. But if YOU want to see it, click HERE, and go to the 44:50 mark; better still, go to the 42:30 mark to get a little context.

Roger Ebert wrote about the recent death of Jeni le Gon: The first black woman signed by Hollywood was livin’ and dancin’ in a great big way. I have seen her work but never knew her name. A telling anecdote about Ronald Reagan is included.

ColorOfChange notes Sundance winner “Fruitvale” examines the last days of Oscar Grant.

I was contemplating whether to go see the controversial current movie Django Unchained. It’s gotten some pretty good reviews, and Oscar-nominated for best picture, among other categories. I’m thinking that I probably won’t, at least for a while. It’s not that it’s too long. It’s not the apparently frequent use of the N-word. It’s my, and my wife’s, aversion to lots of cinematic violence. We saw both Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown by Quentin Tarantino, but this sounds like a new level, and we are just not ready for it.

From Roger Ebert’s review: (This is a spoiler, I suppose, so you can use your cursor to highlight the text if you want) …we visit a Southern Plantation run by a genteel monster named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who for his after-dinner entertainment is having two slaves fight each other to the death. It’s a brutal fight, covered with the blood that flows unusually copiously in the film. The losing slave screams without stopping, and I reflected that throughout the film there is much more screaming in a violent scene than you usually hear. Finally, the fight is over, and there’s a shot of the defeated slave’s head as a hammer is dropped on the floor next to it by Mr. Candie. The hammer, (off-screen but barely) is used by the fight’s winner to finish off his opponent.

That’s the kind of scene after which I might want to get up from the screen for a while and take a time out.

Incidentally, the movie is mentioned in this article about the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms, being ratified to preserve slavery.


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