LSC3 Programming Kerfuffle

The LoneStarCon 3 Pocket Program hasn’t even been online an entire day and it’s already sparked a controversy.

Andrea Phillips sent two tweets after discovering a certain film on the schedule —

Seriously. Song of the South at #worldcon / #lonestarcon3 noon on Saturday. That’s… not OK, right? I mean it’s crazy racist, right…?

And just. Especially on the heels of the Beale “half-savage” garbage. Way to make fans of color feel freaking WELCOME, huh?

That’s a fascinating question. I’ve never seen Song of the South – Disney hasn’t re-released it since I was a toddler. But I’m certainly aware it has a reputation.

However, even the responses of African-American journalists at the time of its initial 1946 release ranged from loathing to wholehearted approval. Here are several examples from the Wikipedia

While Richard B. Dier in The Afro-American was “thoroughly disgusted” by the film for being “as vicious a piece of propaganda for white supremacy as Hollywood ever produced,” Herman Hill in The Pittsburgh Courier felt that Song of the South would “prove of inestimable goodwill in the furthering of interracial relations.” Reviewing the negative aspects of the film, Ebony magazine considered such criticisms to be “unadulterated hogwash symptomatic of the unfortunate racial neurosis that seems to be gripping so many of our humorless brethren these days.”

The debate continues to the present day. Fred Patten recently reviewed two books about Song of the South with opposing points of view about its racist reputation –

Although very similar in subject matter, they are very different in theme.  Disney’s Most Notorious Film, from the University of Texas Press and filled with scholarly footnotes, starts out with the preconception that Disney’s combination live-action/animation feature Song of the South, made in 1946 when Walt Disney was very much in charge of his studio, was a blatantly condescending racist film, an embarrassment that the studio has been trying to cover up while continuing to cash in on as much as possible.  In other words, the book is an academic exposé. Who’s Afraid of the Song of the South?, by a longtime Disney studio employee and fan, argues that it is not racist, and that the Disney company should stop suppressing it today and release it on home video

Andrea Phillips, who raised the issue, is an award-winning transmedia writer, game designer and author of  A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling.

Update 08/21/2013: Song of the South has been pulled from the LSC3 schedule. The official announcement on the LSC3 animation program page explains —

August 21 – Statement re. Song of the South

LoneStarCon 3 had previously announced a presentation of Disney’s Song of the South, to be shown in conjunction with a talk about the period when the film was made, the historical reality of the time, and the changing perspectives of the film in the light of the Civil Rights movement.

We accept that while we fully intended to show the film in context, this was not adequately explained in the text published on our website and in our Pocket Program. Moreover, to continue showing the film in the light of the public concern expressed over the last few hours would send entirely the wrong messages about our event’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. We will therefore no longer be presenting this film as part of our program.

We got this wrong, and we apologize unreservedly to anyone who has been offended, concerned, or in any way been given cause to doubt the welcome that LoneStarCon 3 will extend to all of our members next week.

15 thoughts on “LSC3 Programming Kerfuffle

  1. We borrowed a pirated copy of it once, to see what the fuss was about. Hoo boy. Couldn’t stomach it for long.

    I think that a responsible screening of Song of the South is conceivable, but ONLY as part of an explicit discussion of racism in American storytelling. (Which does NOT mean a panel of Euro-Americans white-splaining how it’s really not that bad!)

    If the result is “we can’t find any PoC who want to conduct that panel”, well, that would be a big damn red flag right there.

  2. Anytime you have to use a puppy-training strategy — shoving their noses into it to be sure they know how much it stinks — fandom is the wrong place for the event. A convention has to respect its audience.

    I have been wondering, why show this film? Why show it at this Worldcon? It doesn’t seem to be attached to any theme or agenda being pursued by the con at large.

    It just seems to be a randomly selected forbidden thing that the film curator knows is rarely made available. Something like Song of the South, as well as those racist WWII propadanda cartoons, will get scheduled at a con by fiat of the volunteer in charge of film programming because in an era where everything can be bought or rented online, these artifacts aren’t distributed through ordinary channels. They make the film program slightly less superflous. And this somehow trumps the offensiveness of the material in that person’s mind.

  3. Once again fandom responds to controversey with censorship; the SF world used to always throw out responses similar the one famously attributed to Voltaire: ” Ido not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Now, in the age of Political Correctness, we simply ban the controversial. This Neo-Stalinist approach violates everything a literary/artistic event is supposed to be about. Art is supposed to be dangerous, people!
    Reading censorship demands in the SF community today immediately draws parallels to an article in the New York Times yesterday:

    HONG KONG — Communist Party cadres have filled meeting halls around China to hear a somber, secretive warning issued by senior leaders. Power could escape their grip, they have been told, unless the party eradicates seven subversive currents coursing through Chinese society.
    These seven perils were enumerated in a memo, referred to as Document No. 9, that bears the unmistakable imprimatur of Xi Jinping, China’s new top leader. The first was “Western constitutional democracy”; others included promoting “universal values” of human rights, Western-inspired notions of media independence and civic participation, ardently pro-market “neo-liberalism,” and “nihilist” criticisms of the party’s traumatic past.

    Even as Mr. Xi has sought to prepare some reforms to expose China’s economy to stronger market forces, he has undertaken a “mass line” campaign to enforce party authority that goes beyond the party’s periodic calls for discipline. The internal warnings to cadres show that Mr. Xi’s confident public face has been accompanied by fears that the party is vulnerable to an economic slowdown, public anger about corruption and challenges from liberals impatient for political change.

    “Western forces hostile to China and dissidents within the country are still constantly infiltrating the ideological sphere,” says Document No. 9, the number given to it by the central party office that issued it in April. It has not been openly published, but a version was shown to The New York Times and was verified by four sources close to senior officials, including an editor with a party newspaper.

    Opponents of one-party rule, it says, “have stirred up trouble about disclosing officials’ assets, using the Internet to fight corruption, media controls and other sensitive topics, to provoke discontent with the party and government.”

    The warnings were not idle. Since the circular was issued, party-run publications and Web sites have vehemently denounced constitutionalism and civil society, notions that were not considered off limits in recent years. Officials have intensified efforts to block access to critical views on the Internet. Two prominent rights advocates have been detained in the past few weeks, in what their supporters have called a blow to the “rights defense movement,” which was already beleaguered under Mr. Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao. ”

    We don’t need Kommissars for Political Correctness in fandom. The suggestion to show the movie with a pro and con discussion is the most fitting and appropriate mechanism for this and any other such situation.

  4. I have seen the film recently, having found a bootleg DVD of it. It’s not a very good film, even by Disney standards. It isn’t very racist, but racial. It’s contribution to culture is the “Zippity doo dah” song, it’s interactive animation and the Tar Baby story. The rest of the story is pretty drab.

    If you mean really racist, this just isn’t that. Wanna upset people? Show Walter Lanz’s little short “Lazy Town.” He got a honorary Oscar for his work, after shoving this one under a rug.

    One convention had some talk overflow by showing ‘”Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs”, done by Bob Clampett. The talk was about how funny it was.

    How many people complaining of its racist qualities are white?

  5. Sadly, the story now circulating a couple steps removed from the source material is one of a convention trying to do it right by presenting some uncomfortable history in an appropriately educational context, and the political correctness police demanding that it be censored anyway.

    (Having now read the program description as preserved in the Making Light post, I have to agree, that blurb was terrible. When it went public was probably where the situation passed the point of no win.)

  6. There are several reasons I am glad that LSC3 decided to pull the film. One is that fans never like a puppy-training approach to a subject. Another is that the person identified as the presenter, while a devoted and well-informed animation enthusiast, has no background I’m aware of that would prepare him to lead the contentious session about sociology and race this was going to become.

  7. I want to clarify what I said up there: I agree with the appraisal that the description of the program item was terrible, not with the urban legend now circulating.

  8. I have a bootleg copy of the film, unadulterated … and find it mainly embarrassing. I don’t think it was meant to be mean-spirited or hostile — Uncle Remus is shown in a very well-meaning and sympathetic way. But it was unconsciously very patronizing at the same time. Given the time and the place, it’s doubtful a light-hearted movie on the subject of black Americans could have been made at all that would have been above criticism. Yet it would have made little sense for Disney to make a dark, serious film about the horrors of race inequality in the Old South around the turn of the century. The only answer would have been to not make Song of the South at all.

    To tell the truth, the live action sequences would have been no loss. No matter how you look at them, they were simpering, false and utterly wet and a weed.

    The animated sequences, on the other hand, seemed to me to be at least a good interpretation of Joel Chandler Harris’s short stories. They are even amusing. Perhaps they can get away with the depiction of southern blacks in the manner they did because there are animals, not humans. Nor are there “white” animals to compare them with. Moreover, the animated characters are clearly broad caricatures of recognizable types of individuals. They *could* just as easily be poor, uneducated whites as blacks. Perhaps the best way that “The Song of the South” could be presented to modern audiences is as a series of animated shorts.

  9. I saw “Song of the South” during its last U-S theatrical release in the 1980s. I found it to be racist, but not viciously racist. That is, black folk are depicted as stereotypes, but sympathetic ones, in the context of a view of the post-Civil War South that is all sugar-coated zip-a-dee-doo-dah, making the life of a black plantation worker look pretty easy. But mainly, I remember the movie as being a little dull. The animated segments showing the Uncle Remus folk tales are good but not spectacular, and the live-action story-line seems like something cobbled together once Disney realized he didn’t have enough money for a fully animated feature. As for debates over whether old racist movies should be reshown in the present day, I think the most defensible showings are those that are deliberate and intelligent examinations (NOT celebrations) of racism, or at least films that in some way show some outstanding quality. But if a film is well enough made to actually promote racism to an audience, I’d question whether I’d want to show it, even at the risk of being labeled politically correct.

  10. …or to be be more clear — even if refusing to show it brought accusations of being politically correct.

  11. I have been wondering, why show this film? Why show it at this Worldcon? It doesn’t seem to be attached to any theme or agenda being pursued by the con at large.

    I would suspect it was meant to be relevant to today’s (as I write this) 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom which included Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, with good intention that was described poorly, hence the quick withdrawal rather than compounding the problem with awkward explanations.

  12. P. S.: And someone should smack KBK in the face with a Godwin fish, ala the Monty Python routine.

    (That’s a metaphor, KBK, not a wish for physical violence to you, just so you will understand what everyone else would without an explanation.)

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