When the movie “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” came out, I debated whether I wanted to see it. Obviously I wasn’t planning to see it in the theater – the times that I visit a theater to see a movie are very few and far between. I’m much happier at home, unless the movie is a real EVENT. For some folks, sure, almost every movie is an event. This one, for me, was not, even taking into account my own fascination with the Tate/LaBianca murders and Charles Manson. Boy, does that make me sound creepy.
Anyway, I wanted to decide whether or not I was up for a viewing of this, and to be honest, I had no idea how Charles Manson and his Family figured into it, going from what I saw in the trailer. I needed some information.
I (re)discovered the podcast “You Must Remember This” in my search for understanding the premise of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” The author of the podcast, Karina Longworth, does a great job leading the listener through the ins and outs of the very complex and confusing tale of Charles Manson, Mary Brunner, Charles Watson, Squeaky Frohm, and Dennis Wilson…wait, what? Dennis Wilson? Beach Boys Dennis Wilson?
Yeah, apparently so. The threads of Manson’s Family and decisions were lengthy, involved, and tangled, but Longworth does a stellar job in holding the listener’s hand – in a non-intrusive or judgy way – and leading them from point to point in the narrative. I finished listening to the podcast with a much better understanding of how Manson and his people factored in to the film, and what exactly happened.
I mean, it’s perfectly acceptable to take the just as legit and true approach and say, “Shit’s cray, yo,” and be on with it, if Manson and murder aren’t your thing. I get it. Because yeah, shit was cray, yo.
But Longworth has gone on to pick up another tale, and it’s one that initially seems about as far from Manson and the Creepy Crawlies as it can be: The Song of the South. Much of the first episode is taken up with her description of the film, which is super helpful in that it’s not available anywhere right now, nor has it been for many years. I remember seeing it as a child, and being completely unaware of the racial issues inherent in it. Of course, that’s part of the problem, because the stuff that the kid watching the film is paying attention to – singing animals and cartoon characters – don’t negate the terrible messages the movie conveys. It’s the quintessential “Look over there at the neat cartoon, honey, while I fill your head with racist messages while you’re not looking” sort of move. There’s a reason that Sesame Street uses cartoons, animals, skits, and other kid-level stuff to teach kids reading and whatnot – if you put the medicine in a treat, the kid gets the medicine, but she also gets the treat. Hmmm. This metaphor seems to make SOTS a treat. I’m not ok with that. But you get the general idea.
For instance, at the start of the film there’s a scene where a group of black workers are singing and walking back from work in the fields. The song they sing is all about how they want to stay here, where they know the land, at their home. The time frame of the film isn’t explicit, but officials have placed the narrative as being set a few years after the Civil War (or, as I’m sure some of them think of it, “the War of Northern Aggression” which is how it was referred to in my growing up years). So the message is clear – the lives of these recently freed slaves was so genuinely bucolic and carefree that they (a) see the plantation as home, and (b) are CHOOSING to remain there.
The movie might have been pulled from circulation, but as Longworth points out, some of the music and characters make it into other Disney works (the crows were in Dumbo, right? Or am I mixing my metaphorical characters here?). And surprisingly (or really, maybe NOT so surprisingly), as recently as the late ’70’s this was performed as a play at a local community college (CPCC Summer Theater).
Much of the blowback relating to discussions of racism as it appears in “Song of the South” is of the “oh it was a different time!” and “oh you young people are just looking for reasons to be offended” (see the comments section in this article for examples of just that sort of hand waving). Neither of these statements comes close to actually addressing the fact that the movie is blatantly, horrifyingly, obnoxiously racist, in ways that are so over the top they would be funny if they weren’t so horrible. If Disney had any sense, they would donate any money they’ve made off those characters or that film in any way to the NAACP, and then incorporate Song of the South into a documentary about how racism is a real problem in Hollywood (and the rest of the US, to be fair). People who write the sorts of comments I reference above are generally not the sort of people who go in for strenuous self reflection or consideration of how their actions impact others, so I don’t expect much better from them; however, it IS still shocking to see people excusing this film, today, regardless of what times were like in the past.
And that brings me to another article I read recently that applies here, and has to do with what some critics are calling “presentism.” I can’t decide how I feel about this – I am currently fixated on the Outlander series, and ran across this article in my obsessive consumption of all things Outlandish. The things discussed in this article are actually things I tell my students about writing – that you must consider the context of the author, the author’s time, as well as that of the consumers of the piece…and that those contextual times might be hundreds of years apart.
So where does “presentism” come down on something like Song of the South? To me, purpose is really important here – and SOTS was written in the same historical revisionism context as Gone with the Wind. If the purpose of the creation is to change the common narrative of a historical situation, I’m gonna have to call foul. No movies are ever going to convince me that slavery was ok, or that the enslaved people appreciated it. But the problem is that these narrative-warping stories are written for people other than me – people who want the concept of the downtrodden Southerner fighting against the invasive and bullying Northern states valiantly, yet failing to continue on (the biggest snowflakes of all, in my opinion, are racists/Trump supporters). That’s not how things went then, but the winners of the war get to write the history.
Fortunately, Longworth is shining a light onto some of these shenanigans. This season of her podcast is shaping up to be a really fascinating story that Longworth is putting together and I’m looking forward to listening to more (although her delivery in some places is overdone). She’s got a great back catalogue of stories in there, and this one really seems like a timely and important exploration.