The Negro Congress picketed the opening of the movie, decrying its “dangerous stereotypes,” and Ebony magazine wrote that it would “set back Negro progress.”
“Song of the South” has since been muffled. It has never been issued on VHS or DVD in the U.S. and hasn’t been seen theatrically in this country since its last re-release in the 1980s.
Floyd Norman, one of the first African-American animators at the Disney studios, will discuss the film Wednesday at the Auburn Avenue Research Library and Thursday at Emory University. His appearance is part of the 100th anniversary celebrations at the Wren’s Nest, the West End house museum and cultural center devoted to the life and works of Harris.
Norman, 78, was 11 years old and living in Santa Barbara, Calif., when the movie first came out, and said his parents were unconcerned about the movie’s portrayal of African-Americans.
“They honestly gave it very little thought, other than it was a Walt Disney motion picture. … I was totally unaware of the controversy and the political overtones and the whole brouhaha,” he said.
Norman has since spent a lifetime as an animator, much of it with Disney and Pixar, working on “Sleeping Beauty,” “Robin Hood,” “Hey! Hey! Hey! It’s Fat Albert,” “Toy Story 2” and “Monsters, Inc.” and many others. He called recently from Disney’s Los Angeles offices, where he still works as a consultant, to talk about “Song of the South” and about his memoir, “Animated Life,” published last spring.
On criticisms of “Song of the South”
If you want to read racial stereotyping into it, that’s your business, but it’s just much ado about nothing. If you try hard enough, you can find fault with everything — the Irish cop, the Italian restaurateur — but keep in mind this is comedy, this is entertainment, this is cartoon making.
On Disney’s “agenda”
Walt Disney was an American filmmaker who liked to tell fanciful stories. … He was trying to capture a little bit of American folklore and that charm and simplicity of those stories. Walt Disney was not making a documentary of the American South.
On Disney’s precautions
Walt was aware of the material he dealt with, that it could be a hot potato. … He hired (black actor and activist) Clarence Muse to be sort of a watchdog over the film, to make sure if he treaded on dangerous ground that he would be called on it. (Muse subsequently left the production.)
On working with “The Old Meister” planning the 1966 movie, “The Jungle Book”
I was on one of his story crews, I was at meetings with the old man himself. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time. I liked him. I had no problem with Walt Disney. Granted, he was a tough boss, he wasn’t always easy to deal with.
On the criticisms of a white writer, Harris, popularizing black folk tales
There was no way at that particular time that a black author was going to publish a book of tales told by former slaves. We should be grateful that Joel Chandler Harris did take the time to (record) those tales, so they wouldn’t be lost, rather than take offense at him writing down these stories.