Floyd Norman, Disney legend, defends the Mouse’s most controversial film
It took 30 years, but Disney finally removed its last reference to The Song of the South. Last month, Disney announced it was “re-imagining” Disneyland’s Splash Mountain ride because it uses characters from the controversial movie.
While many cheered Disney for the decision, Floyd Norman, a legendary Black animator and member of the Black Filmmaker Hall Of Fame, did not. While he understood why Disney made the changes, Norman is a fierce supporter of his former employer; he wants the company to re-release Song Of The South and embrace that part of its past.
Recently, the former Disney artist appeared on the Movies That Made Me podcast and admitted that he personally pushed Disney executives to re-release the controversial movie.
“I have argued with Disney executives and Disney attorneys about Song of the South. I call them out on it,” Norman said on the podcast. “They’re just wimping out.”
While Black people are not a monolith, it’s still surprising to hear Norman’s support for Song Of The South. He’s a Black animation icon. As told in the documentary about him, Floyd Norman: An Animated Life, Norman, now 85, started working for Disney in 1957 as an in-betweener on Sleeping Beauty. He made his way up to the story department for Jungle Book, which meant he worked with Walt Disney himself.
After Walt Disney died in 1966, Norman left and co-founded Vignette Films with fellow black animator Leo Sullivan. Together they produced the first educational films on black historical subjects like Booker T. Washington. They also worked on the Fat Albert show and the introduction animation to Soul Train.
I reached out to Norman through the podcast to see if he’d want to talk more about Song Of The South. He agreed to talk with only a hint of hesitation in his reply: “I’m delighted to meet you and hopefully have an insightful discussion.”
Into the briar patch
My first question to Norman when we spoke on the phone a few days later was “Did he actually push Disney to re-release Song of the South?” Yes he did, and does, and he added that a book publisher called earlier that day asking for his help in convincing Disney to license some Br’er Animals books. He doesn’t work at Disney anymore but he’s still a presence there, and because he worked with Mr. Walt Disney himself, people listen to him.
“I don’t think I’ve been a real thorn in Disney’s side, it’s just that whenever there was time to speak up for the film I became sort of the film’s advocate because I knew enough about it, maybe more so than most,” Norman said.
This leads us to discuss Disney’s motivations for the movies — making that Gone With The Wind money — and surprisingly early in our talk, Floyd admits he’s been rethinking his views on Song Of The South. He says that he “can understand why some African Americans would maybe feel offended by that motion picture and so I’ve tried to come over to their side.”
“My wife often says that I live in a bubble,” Floyd says. “Keep in mind I’m not a kid who had a rough and a tragic life. I was not the victim of racism. I had almost an idyllic life growing up in Santa Barbara, California. I have to be reminded of that, that my perspective is probably not the perspective of most Black Americans.”
This aspect of Norman is also highlighted in a short-yet-revealing scene with his wife Adrienne Brown-Norman. She says that Norman’s childhood in ‘30s-era Santa Barbara was so unlike what other Black people experienced in those days that when he finally visited the segregated South years later, “it was so far from what he knew that he didn’t see it affecting him.”
Yet after his admission, Norman defended Song Of The South and every other Disney product vociferously. Even the lack of diversity at Disney Studios wasn’t the company’s fault,“Because they didn’t show up no black people got hired.” Norman also doesn’t take issue with Disney’s most problematic characters, not even Jim Crow from Dumbo (“Disney was taking a good natured poke at the culture in America’s south”) or Uncle Remus.
Loving the tar baby
I told him about how my father, a conservative white man, used to read me Br’ er Rabbit stories in the voice of Remus and how I knew, even as a young boy, that it was wrong. Norman then asked me if I thought “having a southern accent was wrong?”
“We’ve written stories at Disney that have taken place in the south where we’ve given white characters a southern accent because that’s the accent they would have,” Norman said. “That’s the way they talk. We’re not mocking them, we’re just trying to keep our story as authentic as possible.”
Norman says he owns a framed cell of the infamous tar baby. He has a few cells from the film but the tar baby is from his favorite scene. Then, without prompting, Norman explained to me how audiences read too much into the tar-baby metaphor.
“That was not an intentional thing that tar represents black people but once again, here’s a storytelling device that people read way too much into,” Norman said.
In a way he’s right. The metaphor wasn’t intentionally racist. The issue is that the phrase has been used as a “dog whistle” by politicians, most notably during the Obama administration.
While Norman defended every creative decision Walt Disney ever made, he doesn’t deny the existence of racism. His father was from Natchez, Mississippi and “had a darn good reason to be terrified of policemen.” He also filmed the Watts riots in 1965 with Leo Sullivan, and when he saw the rioters throwing rocks at police, he understood why.
“By the time I got to be older I understood the social issues we were dealing with here in America, it’s just that I didn’t have to deal with those issues when I was growing up,” Norman said.
While he never said it directly during our conversation, Norman clearly defends everything Disney because he loves Walt Disney. He started watching Disney movies at the age of 4 and the first place he went to work after college was Disney. Working at Disney was his dream, Out of all his achievements, it’s what he identifies with most. And while Disney can clean up its founder’s reputation on their own — and have tried with Saving Mr. Banks–Norman sticks out his neck on his hero’s behalf out of pure respect.
At the end of our talk, Norman said he wanted Song Of The South re-released but insisted it must be with a warning. The context of the film should be made clear when watching it. But he also wants viewers to know that Disney had the best intentions.
“Walt Disney was an overly optimistic man,” Norman said. “He looked for the positive in everything, whether it was a European folk tale or an American story about the post Civil War south. And a lot of people hated that about him.”