Monday, June 16, 2014

Walt Disney: a union-buster, but not quite as racist as I thought

God, I want to see the Robeson version of Song of the South. Hmm. With Bertolt Brecht writing and directing.

From Walt Disney -- prince or toad? - Los Angeles Times:
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. 
Moreover, his later live-action films typically promoted racial tolerance, and he was much more sympathetic to Native Americans than most of his contemporaries.