Its inspiration is so racist Disney's buried it for decades. So should Splash Mountain change?
Disney will be the first to tell you that “Song of the South” is racist.
For years, in fact, they haven’t shied away from it. In March, Disney executive chairman Bob Iger told shareholders that the film is “not appropriate in today’s world,” so much so the company wouldn’t even release it with an “outdated cultural depictions” disclaimer.
“Song of the South” hasn’t been released since its 40th anniversary theatrical run in 1986 and it’s never been commercially available for purchase in the U.S. With the launch of its streaming service Disney+, Iger confirmed “Song of the South” would not be included on the platform. But it does occasionally come back into the public discourse, most recently due to a petition demanding the company rebrand Splash Mountain, a popular ride at Disneyland themed after the film.
Because the movie isn’t widely available — although some copyright scamps have illegally uploaded it online — most have never seen it in its entirety. Its reputation as a racist relic is based on a few clips and on Disney’s insistence that it won’t release the film again. As a result, some fans of the movie claim “Song of the South” isn’t nearly as bad as innuendo would have you believe.
It is. The movie is steeped in racist stereotypes and minstrel tropes. They are intrinsic to the narrative, not passing references. The plot revolves around Johnny, a young white boy in the Reconstruction South, who lives on his family’s plantation. Many people, then and now, mistakenly believe the movie is set before or during the Civil War, a mistake that’s easy to make because the world is composed of white masters and Black workers. In one song, the Black plantation workers allude to choosing to stay on the farm over risking the outside world, implying these formerly enslaved people willingly decided to work for their former oppressors. This, of course, ignores the reality of the Reconstruction era, where employment was not readily available anywhere for Black people and many, as a matter of survival, remained on plantations in systems that were still slavery in all but name.
Into this world comes Johnny, whose parents’ marital woes are the central conflict of the movie. Emotionally neglected by his mother and father, Johnny turns to Uncle Remus, a kindly Black man who was once enslaved on the plantation. He — and all the other Black characters — exist in the film to serve Johnny’s needs, a typical racist trope wherein Black characters live only to support and care for white children.
The movie cuts between live action sequences and animated ones featuring the adventures of Br’er Rabbit. In perhaps the most troubling overly racist scene, Uncle Remus tells Johnny these stories are from “the old days” before the Civil War.
“In dem days, everything was mighty satisfactual… and if you’ll excuse me for saying so, ‘twas better all around,” Remus says. The scene leads into the movie’s most famous musical number, "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” The song was written by a white man, and its inspiration isn’t definitive. But many scholars have noted its similarity to a minstrel song called “Zip Coon.” (And in case anyone wants to argue minstrel songs aren’t inherently racist, they are. Minstrel shows were created by white people for white people, using Black stereotypes as a form of entertainment.)
Fans say “Song of the South” is merely a product of its time, racist only with the benefit of hindsight. But the argument doesn’t hold up. Even during its production in the mid-1940s, “Song of the South” worried Disney employees. It was a passion project of Walt Disney himself, who had tried for years to acquire the rights to the Joel Chandler Harris books on which the movie is based.
(It is worth noting here that Harris has a controversial legacy himself, with some asserting his Uncle Remus tales helped preserve African American storytelling while others say he appropriated a culture that wasn’t his in order to profit off it. One thing is certain: He never credited any of the Black storytellers by name.)
Murmuring about the film’s source material was persistent enough for Disney that he decided to bring in a writer to review the script. Although some asked him to use Black consultants, he went with Maurice Rapf. Rapf, who was a communist and Jewish, was considered outsider enough by Disney. After a few weeks, Rapf got into an argument with the original screenwriter and was moved to another project.
When the movie premiered in 1946, it was met with immediate pushback, including protests and picketing all over the nation.
“You begin to wonder if Disney doesn’t think Lincoln was wrong in signing the Emancipation Proclamation,” one review in the New Yorker read. Influential Hollywood columnist Jimmie Fidler said the movie “should be immediately withdrawn and the entire Hollywood industry share the cost because it will mean a black eye for all of the industry.”
Although it was released several more times over the decades as part of Disney’s lucrative theater re-release strategy, “Song of the South” has stayed in the vault since 1986. But that hasn’t stopped the company from utilizing its intellectual property in a way that whitewashes its history.
In the 1980s, Disneyland began developing a “Song of the South”-themed ride called Splash Mountain. It was part of then-CEO Michael Eisner’s obsession with adding thrill rides, primarily aimed at teen visitors, to the parks. The ride was meant to be the centerpiece of a new land, Critter Country, that focused on beloved Disney animals. It also allowed imagineers to repurpose old animatronics from the shuttered America Sings attraction.
The log flume, with its signature drop, is based only on the animated sequences of the film. Uncle Remus appears nowhere in the ride, turning it into its own sort of revisionist history. As journalist Karina Longworth points out in her Hollywood podcast “You Must Remember This,” the changes allow Disney to mitigate the damaging racist stereotypes of “Song of the South” while still monetizing the most palatable parts. Although they no longer make money from movie sales, the instant success of Splash Mountain showed “Song of the South” worked as a powerful marketing tool for the parks.
There is one more fact that may interest people weighing the Splash Mountain debate. Some have noted the attraction’s similarities to a flume ride that operated at Six Flags Over Georgia from 1967-80. Tales of the Okefenokee took riders through the stories of Br’er Rabbit and his pals, although here too Uncle Remus was noticeably absent (although that's possibly because Disney owned the I.P. at that point). Although obscure on a national level, Splash Mountain designer Tony Baxter once said in an interview he had been on it, lending credence to the idea it played a role in influencing the Disneyland ride.
Six Flags Over Georgia had six themed lands, one for each of the “flags” that has flown over the state in its history: Spain, France, the U.K., the Confederacy, the United States and the state of Georgia.
Tales of the Okefenokee was located in the Confederate section.
Katie Dowd is the SFGATE managing editor. Email her: email@example.com | Twitter: @katiedowd