As Disney opens, some racist imagery is pulled but much remains

As Walt Disney World prepares to begin a phased reopening today, its owner is making long-overdue changes following the global movement against racial injustice.

Last month, the Walt Disney Company announced it would replace its log-flume Splash Mountain attractions in Orlando and California with a different theme following “The Princess and the Frog,” a 2009 animated film that features Disney’s first, and only, Black princess, Tiana.

Tokyo Disneyland, run by Oriental Land, Co., is considering retheming its Splash Mountain attraction following the same plan. 

Although the changes have been in the works for a year, they follow a trend of racially problematic films and television episodes being removed, censored, or given disclaimers after the protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in police custody. The Black Lives Matter movement has drawn attention to how race is depicted in the entertainment industry. 

“These are business decisions,” said Alfred Soto, an FIU professor. “The business people at Disney feel the market place jitters. It is not that they are suddenly high-minded. It’s that their shareholders suddenly say, ‘We don’t want to be associated with this.'”

Magic Kingdom and Disneyland will reopen with the original Splash Mountain. Although the ride has no racist context, it contains animatronic animal characters and music, like Oscar-winning “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” from Disney’s most controversial film, “The Song of the South.” Released in 1946 and based on the Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris, it never received a home video release in the United States and has been locked away by Disney for more than 30 years. Several clips can easily be found on YouTube, and some websites offer versions of the movie.

While it is not available on Disney+, and former Walt Disney CEO Bob Iger says we should not expect to see it released anytime soon, if ever, the streaming service has added disclaimers to other classics in which viewers are given “outdated cultural depiction” warnings for offensive depictions of Native Americans in “Peter Pan” and a group of crows led by one named Jim Crow in “Dumbo.”

A mix of live-action and cartoons, “Song of the South” takes place in Georgia during the Reconstruction era and features Uncle Remus, a Black man living on a plantation who tells fables of talking animals – Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Bear and Br’er Fox – to a child named Johnny, who is the grandchild of the plantation owners.

Soto says some audiences believe it exploits minstrel language and imagery.

“We bring out associations of Disney and think, ‘How is it possible that this progressive organization released THIS?’” he says. “So our childhood memories interfere with a viewing of the film released during a time many of us would long to forget.”

Actor James Baskett was given an Honorary Academy Award for his portrayal of Uncle Remus, making him the first Black male performer to win an Oscar. Baskett, alongside the other Black cast members, did not attend the film’s premiere in Atlanta, Georgia because it was racially segregated at the time. 

“Gone with the Wind,” another well-known film about the south and slavery, was temporarily removed from HBO Max, owned by AT&T. The decision followed the publication of an L.A. Times op-ed by Oscar-winning writer John Ridley that argued the film should be removed or reintroduced with conversations that put it into context.

“Gone with the Wind” has since returned to HBO’s streaming service, but with a disclaimer by Turner Classic Movies personality Jacqueline Stewart, who explains how the movie was made and received. HBO also added a video of a panel discussion about the film from the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2019.

The 1939 highest-grossing film of all time, based on Margaret Mitchell’s novel of the same name, romanticizes the Civil War-era South while glossing over the horrors of slavery on a plantation. It displays derogatory racial stereotypes of “darkies” and “inferiors.”

Hattie McDaniel, who also starred in “Song of the South,” played Mammy, the dutiful house slave to the O’Hara family. Butterfly McQueen played a comically inept slave named Prissy. In American movies at the time, Black actors and actresses were limited to house servant roles, which McDaniel embraced. She played a maid at least 74 times over her career. 

Hattie McDaniel (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

After being criticized by the NAACP for perpetuating stereotypes, she responded by saying she would rather play a maid on-screen than be one in real life.

“She was always conscious that she was an African American woman, that there were limitations in her period and that she wanted to do more than what was offered to her,” says Mark A. Reid, a professor of English and African American Studies at the University of Florida and an author. “But she took what was offered in Hollywood and she tried to do the best for that role.” 

Reid is the author of “Redefining Black Film” and “Black Lenses, Black Voices: African American Film Now”, among other works.

McDaniel was the first African American to win an Oscar, winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in “Gone with the Wind.” Like Baskett, McDaniel could not attend the premiere in Atlanta because it was held at a whites-only theater.

One of the latest changes by networks and streaming services has been the removal of a series of television episodes.

Last week, Hulu dumped a 1988 episode of “The Golden Girls” in which two of the main characters, Blanche and Rose, played by Rue McClanahan and Betty White, try a mud facial treatment and walk into a room to greet a Black family. Other shows like “30 Rock,” “The Office,” “Scrubs,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and more have followed suit by erasing racist imagery and stereotypes.

But much remains. Arguably one of the most racist films in history, the 1915 silent film “The Birth of a Nation,” is currently available to stream on Dish Network’s Sling TV (with no warning), Kanopy and YouTube. Based on Thomas Dixon’s 1905 novel titled, “The Clansman,” it depicts Black people as lazy, savage, degenerate attackers and glorifies the Ku Klux Klan.

In one scene, newly elected Black representatives in the South Carolina legislature, played by white actors in blackface, meet to pass a bill permitting interracial marriage. One takes a swig from a bottle, another takes his shoes off and props his bare feet on his desk. A third devours a piece of fried chicken. In perhaps the most offensive scene, a white woman chooses to jump off a cliff and commit suicide to avoid being raped by a Black man.

Running nearly three hours, this film was the longest movie ever released at the time. It was said director D.W. Griffith had pioneered modern cinema by introducing a new type of visual storytelling.

Soto recognizes the film is troubling but believes it is necessary in the classroom.

“Everything we know about the close-up and montage came from that 1915 film, so it’s an essential,” he says. “If you’re teaching a history of film, ‘The Birth of a Nation’ is the birth of film. You can’t get around teaching it.”

One thing these three films have in common is that they were products of their time, but they were controversial upon their releases – civil rights activists and groups like the NAACP protested the films’ releases, often boycotting the films or picketing outside of theaters.

“If you watch the film and the film makes you uncomfortable, know that it made audiences at the time uncomfortable too,” says Soto.

Adds U.F’s Reid: “I don’t think you can erase history; history is always out there. Somebody, whether it is a scholar or the public or journalists, they are going to bring that history back into the public. These films offer another vision of what America was about or is still about.”

Bianca Marcof is a journalism major at Florida International University. She is interested in multimedia reporting, but her favorite thing to do is write.