It's strange to revisit a movie that you last saw 20+ years ago, especially when it's been completely out of circulation, and to find that it still hits an emotional nerve. This is, of course, the classic Disney movie that has never appeared on home video in the U.S. and has been pulled from public viewing for years out of fear of its depictions of African-American stereotypes, which I saw unexpectedly tonight at a special screening.
In some happier part of the South located not far from Gone With the Wind's Tara, young Johnny travels with his parents to his Grandmother's plantation, when suddenly his father has to turn back around and leave them for reasons the movie glosses over (Business? Killing Yankees?). Distressed, Johnny makes new friends and listens to the colorful stories of Br'er Rabbit told by local 'magical negro' Uncle Remus.
As it happens, Uncle Remus is no more racist than the various 'magical negroes' in The Legend of Bagger Vance or The Green Mile, and he's substantially less racist than Jar-Jar Binks or various characters in 300. Remus is a sympathetic figure and a positive stereotype - but a stereotype nonetheless, and the movie is suffused with the notion that its cheerful African-American characters (whose labor status on the plantation is fuzzy, to say the least) are there to defer to the white, upper-class Southern family at its center and help young Johnny work through his individual growing pains and traumas. Disney movies and kids' movies tend to traffic in stereotypes and simplistic, easy-to-follow iconography, which makes it possible for me to forgive this film for its depictions but also to agree with Roger Ebert that it doesn't really need to be released for general viewing. There's no reason to make American kids feel any more entitled than they already are.
All that said, it's remarkable how well the movie holds up in spite of its problems, and it's strange to realize that the whole movie is an allegory of Disney's own brand of filmmaking, casting himself as Uncle Remus, whimsical storyteller clashing with the sensible, disapproving mothers of America, which suggests a certain self-pity within Disney's mind - Uncle Walt never lived in a wooden shack. But the central idea - that Uncle Remus's stories allow young Johnny a way to get through his growing pains - was surely designed for an audience whose fathers were just coming back from Europe and the Pacific, and it resonates today in a time when kids are left to their own devices as much as ever (albeit more in suburban realms than gauzy rural ones). It's a surprisingly charming, if naive and flawed, piece of work.
(Hopefully before Black History Month is over I can also write an "It's not that bad!" review of either The Jazz Singer or The Birth of a Nation. That's a joke.)