If you have ever been to any Disney park, the song "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" has probably been blasted on some speakers near you. However, many people and even some die-hard Disney fans don't know the origin of this song. Song of the South, the 1946 film where the song comes from, is very difficult to find traces of in the Walt Disney Company. Well, all except for a large part.
Song of the South is a movie that depicts the life of Uncle Remus as he tells the fictional tales of Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Fox, and Br'er Rabbit to a little boy named Johnny. This might seem innocent and fun but the problem lies with the depiction of Uncle Remus and other characters in the movie. Uncle Remus and his fellow black friends and family live on Johnny's grandfather's plantation. Throughout the whole movie, you can see problematic depictions of black characters using AAVE and being based on commonly used in the media like the Sambo or the Mammy.
While the movie isn't depicting slavery but more so Reconstruction Era, this still is a bad depiction of what it is like to live on a plantation as a black person. All the characters seem content with their situation which was much farther from reality at that time. The story relies on a lot of stereotypes for their black characters when they really should be more fleshed-out. Not many people know the history of this film because the Walt Disney Company decided to stop releasing the film in the US and many people who do remember the film have slowly forgotten it.
The only real trace of the movie itself is in the ride Splash Mountain, which debuted in Disneyland in 1998 and then subsequently a few years later in the Magic Kingdom and Tokyo Disneyland. The ride itself doesn't depict any of the problematic parts of the movie relating to Uncle Remus and all the other black people that live in the Plantation, but more so talking about the animals that are in the story. I had a friend who didn't even know what the ride was based on because the movie is so hidden in the Disney Vault. But like many things in 2020, change was coming.
Amid racial tensions and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Walt Disney Company announced that they would be redesigning the ride Splash Mountain into a ride themed around the 2009 movie The Princess and the Frog. These plans had been in the works for some time, but it's no coincidence that they announced around the time of George Floyd the protests going around America. There have been mixed reactions from pretty much everyone about change but as a Black Disney fan, I think I have one unique perspective.
Growing up, there weren't many Disney characters that looked like me. I mean we had The Proud Family and That's So Raven but there wasn't really a Disney princess that looked like me until I was about 9 years old. When The Princess and the Frog came out, I finally felt like there was a character that I could relate to that looked like me. I surely thought when I got older there would be tons of other princesses that my little sisters could see themselves in. But so far Tiana is still the only black one eleven years later.
I do think that Song of the South is a problematic movie and it should we acknowledge that Splash Mountain is based on that movie. However, I feel like changing Splash Mountain into a The Princess in the Frog ride doesn't change the problem. It makes it appear like Disney is using Tiana as a scapegoat by replacing one problematic depiction with their sole Disney animated feature so far with a black lead. This doesn't even address the problematic past of Song of the South and why it needs to be changed in the first place.
What Disney should do is acknowledge that Song of the South was a problematic time and a problematic film that they created and maybe even re-release the film with some of that historical context put in by black experts, similar to how Warner Brothers did with some older Looney Tunes cartoons. But by changing the ride altogether, it kind of seems like Disney is trying to erase their problematic past and that's not okay, This change without any historical context only will anger die-hard Disney fans who love Splash Mountain and don't understand why it's being taken away. If you're going to make this significant of a change there has to be some educational aspect of it for the change to actually be fair and make sense.
So while I love The Princess and the Frog and I love Disney, I do think that there is a lot of things that they can do better. Tiana isn't just a token character that you can use to appease black audiences. If Disney wants to do better they can start by acknowledging their racist past and moving forward by creating Splash Mountain into basically anything else. It doesn't have to be The Princess and the Frog because the only reason why they're changing it to that is for pandering reasons. If Disney wants to truly show that they care about their black audience, they would create more black characters, hire more black animators, black business people, black engineers, and so many others. But until Disney now acknowledges their problematic past, everything afterward will just be empty gestures.