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Disney's Most Notorious Film: Race, Convergence, and the Hidden Histories of Song of the South

Disney's Most Notorious Film: Race, Convergence, and the Hidden Histories of Song of the South

by Jason Sperb


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The Walt Disney Company offers a vast universe of movies, television shows, theme parks, and merchandise, all carefully crafted to present an image of wholesome family entertainment. Yet Disney also produced one of the most infamous Hollywood films, Song of the South. Using cartoon characters and live actors to retell the stories of Joel Chandler Harris, SotS portrays a kindly black Uncle Remus who tells tales of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and the “Tar Baby” to adoring white children. Audiences and critics alike found its depiction of African Americans condescending and outdated when the film opened in 1946, but it grew in popularity—and controversy—with subsequent releases. Although Disney has withheld the film from American audiences since the late 1980s, SotS has an enthusiastic fan following, and pieces of the film—such as the Oscar-winning “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”—remain throughout Disney’s media universe. Disney’s Most Notorious Film examines the racial and convergence histories of Song of the South to offer new insights into how audiences and Disney have negotiated the film’s controversies over the last seven decades. Jason Sperb skillfully traces the film’s reception history, showing how audience perceptions of SotS have reflected debates over race in the larger society. He also explores why and how Disney, while embargoing the film as a whole, has repurposed and repackaged elements of SotS so extensively that they linger throughout American culture, serving as everything from cultural metaphors to consumer products.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780292756779
Publisher: University of Texas Press
Publication date: 12/01/2012
Pages: 294
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Jason Sperb is a lecturer in the Department of Radio/Television/Film at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

Table of Contents

PrefaceAcknowledgmentsIntroductionChapter 1. Conditions of Possibility: The Disney Studios, Postwar "Thermidor," and the Ambivalent Origins of Song of the SouthChapter 2. "Put Down the Mint Julep, Mr. Disney": Postwar Racial Consciousness and Disney's Critical Legacy in the 1946 Reception of Song of the SouthChapter 3. "Our Most Requested Movie": Media Convergence, Black Ambivalence, and the Reconstruction of Song of the SouthChapter 4. A Past That Never Existed: Coonskin, Post-racial Whiteness, and Rewriting History in the Era of ReaganismChapter 5. On Tar Babies and Honey Pots: Splash Mountain, "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah," and the Transmedia Dissipation of Song of the SouthChapter 6. Reassuring Convergence: New Media, Nostalgia, and the Internet Fandom of Song of the SouthConclusionAppendix. Timeline for Song of the South and Its ParatextsNotesSelected BibliographyIndex

What People are Saying About This

Jonathan Gray

This book is extremely smart, painstakingly researched, and it ties together many concepts and issues that too rarely find themselves in the same book. Sperb is a gifted writer, who holds his reader's attention with skill, and he provides a fantastic piece of work here, one that will serve multiple publics and that fills in important historical territory while also advancing discussions on race, convergence, Disney, film reception, textuality, and remediation. This is really quite a spectacular achievement.
Jonathan Gray, Professor of Media and Cultural Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and author of Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts

Arthur Knight

Disney's Most Notorious Film is a tremendously interesting, timely, provocative, and useful project. It is unique in studying reception and fandom through focus on a single, though also importantly dispersed and plural, text of nearly seventy years' duration and circulation. On its own, Song of the South is a film demanding more analysis than it has received, and Sperb has given it the attention it deserves precisely by focusing on what's most intriguing about it: Its controversial aspects, its unique place in the Disney canon and marketing work, its fans, and the ways its pleasure and affect connect with changing American ideas about race. Perhaps the most important finding of this book is that fan activity--which in contemporary scholarship is most often celebrated for creating new knowledge and engaged producer-consumers--is very complex as it unfolds over time, and that it can have undesirable outcomes.
Arthur Knight, Associate Professor of American Studies and English, The College of William and Mary, author of Disintegrating the Musical: African American Performance and American Musical Film and coeditor of Soundtrack Available: Film and Pop Music

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