The LA Times has an essay written by Neal Gabler, the author of the recent book “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination,” who takes on the question of whether Walt Disney was a racist – a charge that is sometimes leveled against him. Since he began making motion pictures, “The Princess and the Frog” due out in December is the first African-American princess.
Neal writes about the charges of racism origins and uses the example of Walt’s attempts to make sure his 1946 “Song of the South” acceptable to African Americans and Walt’s reaction when it failed.
But Walt anticipated these criticisms and actually went to great lengths to make the film as racially sensitive as he could. He hired a Jewish left-wing screenwriter, Maurice Rapf, to do a draft of the script because, as he told Rapf, “You’re against Uncle Tomism and you’re a radical.” Before signing Baskett, he approached the black actor, singer and leftist activist Paul Robeson to play Remus and asked him to review the script. And he sent the script to a number of black notables for comment, including the actress Hattie McDaniel; the secretary of the NAACP, Walter White; and, via his friend producer Walter Wanger, Howard University scholar Alvin Locke. Walt even did something that he had done on no previous film: He invited White to the studio to work on revisions with him. White begged off, saying he was too busy. In short, Walt did everything he could plausibly do to get input from the black community. The usually peremptory man was anything but peremptory here.
Yet Walt was more politically obtuse than he was racially obtuse. When the film opened, he was stunned by the firestorm of protest from African Americans who thought it was condescending and demeaning, among them Walter White, who complained to the New York Times that the black-white relationships in the film were a “distortion of facts.” Former admirers, like the producer Billy Rose, condemned Walt as well. One group, the Theatre Chapter of the National Negro Congress, picketed theaters where the film was shown. Walt came to blame the black actor Clarence Muse, ironically one of those he had solicited for suggestions. Muse, he said, had wanted the role of Remus, and when he didn’t get it, he turned to black newspapers to attack the film.
But remarkably for a man who took everything personally, this disappointment did not sour Walt on race relations the way the strike had soured him on unions. He successfully fought to get Baskett an honorary Oscar when Baskett fell seriously ill shortly after the film’s release, and he was especially solicitous to Baskett’s family.