The company has a fantastic stock of movies. Many folks my age were raised on Disney movies and cartoons, made in the days way before Netflix and Hulu. Some even before television. Many have been ruled decidedly racist, created during a time in our nation’s history when we were decidedly racist.
With its new streaming service, Disney has added another ratings descriptor to such standards as “thematic elements,” “adult situations” and “potentially disturbing images.” Now there is “outdated cultural depictions,” a phrase that Walt’s company will use to describe some of those old productions.
Except “Song of the South,” which Disney so far has promised to not release – unless viewers want to buy it, in which case, well, money is money.
Later in the day, I watched “The Help,” a 2011 movie in which several black women portrayed their 1960s counterparts in the south, who cleaned house, cooked dinners, and cared for white children so white mothers with enough money to hire “help” could avoid the chores of changing diapers and tending sick kids.
Good for Disney, though I suspect the statement is more to meet political correctness and profits goals, than a real effort to address the ills of history. “Outdated” does not seem to describe a social system in which a man walks into a church and kills nine worshipers, or into a synagogue and kills 11.
Warner Brothers has its own library of old cartoons, and a longer disclaimer: “The cartoons you are about to see are products of their time. They may depict some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that were commonplace in American Society. These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today. While these cartoons do not represent today’s society, they are being presented as they were originally created because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.”
Many of my age were raised laughing at jokes without realizing the significance of the messages they supported. It was not until I began traveling the world that I began thinking about ideas I had simply accepted as a youngster.
It never occurred to the younger me that actors portraying American Indians were white men. Where I lived, there were no black people; it was unremarkable that African-Americans were often portrayed by white actors. After all, I had enjoyed “To Sir, With Love,” starring Sidney Portier, a real African-American, in a story that revealed he bled red blood when sliced by a tin can.
I am older now, with more experience. I have met, played and eaten with people from many different cultures. I wonder now how those black actors in “The Help” felt about the parts they played, finally getting to portray their lives as they were rather than the blissful, singing roles of always happy “mammy.”
It is well documented that there would not now be a United States of America had northern anti-slavery representatives insisted on southern oligarchs surrendering their pro-slavery cultures. It is a black mark on our history that making one nation out of 13 was held up by a practice that many of us – though clearly not all of us – believe, nearly 240 years later, to be immoral.
“Song of the South” and “The Help” depict our culture as it existed in the time they describe. The latter is not that long ago.
But we have some work to do before we can truly declare some of our prejudices “outdated.”
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