Not Streaming: ‘Song of the South’ and Other Films Stay in the Past

LOS ANGELES — To augment its new streaming service, Disney reached into the far, far recesses of its movie library.

“Sammy, the Way-Out Seal” (1962), a TV movie about two boys and their groovy aquatic pet, was available on Day 1. So were “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” (1969), a comedy starring an 18-year-old Kurt Russell, and “The Castaway Cowboy” (1974), an action drama set on Kauai and originally marketed with the tagline “He tamed the wild cattle … and the WILD natives of old Hawaii.”

But not every outdated Disney movie made the cut.

It was never a question, for instance, whether Disney Plus subscribers would have access to the 1946 Disney musical “Song of the South,” in which a former slave, Uncle Remus, recounts African folk tales. “Song of the South” won an Oscar for its centerpiece song, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” and mixed live-action filmmaking and animation in a way that was groundbreaking. But Disney has not made “Song of the South” available in any form — for 33 years — because of its racist imagery. Upon the movie’s release, the N.A.A.C.P. said “Song of the South” gave “the impression of an idyllic master-slave relationship.”

Robert A. Iger, Disney’s chief executive, made his stance on the film clear at a 2011 shareholder meeting. “Don’t expect to see it again for at least a while — if ever,” he said.

Every big movie studio has a skeleton or three in its film closet. Warner Bros. would prefer if everyone forgot about the racist Bugs Bunny cartoons it put out in the 1940s; “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” a James Cagney musical from 1942, includes a grandiose blackface number. “Yankee Doodle Dandy” was filmed on the same Warner soundstage where WarnerMedia executives gathered last month to unveil their HBO Max streaming service.

But the streaming boom — Disney Plus arrived on Tuesday, to be followed by Peacock from NBCUniversal in April and HBO Max from Warner in May — has put problem films back in the spotlight. The absence of “Song of the South” from Disney Plus’s content list has prompted discussion among film critics and historians about whether it should be released for educational purposes. The cinema-focused podcast “You Must Remember This” is doing a six-episode examination of the film.

Disney declined to comment.

Hollywood companies want to build video platforms that can compete with Netflix and Amazon, and part of their sales pitch to consumers involves access to “deep library” titles. So people are understandably curious about why certain movies are AWOL.

Why does Disney Plus have room for “Chef Donald,” a short from 1941 starring Donald Duck, but not “Commando Duck,” a seven-minute cartoon from 1944?

Look a little closer: “Commando Duck,” one of the propaganda cartoons Disney made for the United States military during World War II, finds Donald on a mission to Japan, where he runs into locals who speak with singsong accents and pointedly shoot their enemies in the back. Disney Plus is not an archive.

“No one is irresponsible enough to show these problem films without proper context,” Leonard Maltin, the film critic and podcast host, said in a phone interview. “You certainly would not want them accessible to children.”

Turner Classic Movies, the cable network dedicated to film history, has long had to navigate these waters. Some films from the early days of Hollywood are so problematic that they should rarely be shown, said Charles Tabesh, who oversees programming for TCM. At the same time, he said, studios should be careful about censoring themselves.

“Our culture has become more sensitive,” Mr. Tabesh said. “But we don’t edit movies here, not ever.”

In April, it was widely reported that Disney Plus would edit “Dumbo” (1941) to remove the cigar-smoking crows, which are seen as thinly veiled racist caricatures. But Disney Plus went live with the original “Dumbo” available in its entirety. “This program is presented as originally created,” the description read. “It may contain outdated cultural depictions.”

There are reasons aside from sensitivity that movies from Disney’s library may be missing from Disney Plus. Some recent Marvel films are licensed to other platforms; they will shift to Disney Plus as those deals expire. The company may be withholding some chestnuts to serve up later. (“The Happiest Millionaire,” now streaming!)

But it seems fairly obvious why Disney Plus did not arrive with the PG-rated “Devil and Max Devlin” (1981), which stars Bill Cosby, who is serving a prison sentence for sexual predation. He plays the devil’s horned henchman, Barney Satin, whose “main goal is swiping soul.” In one scene, he gyrates his hips toward a support beam in a nightclub. “Welcome to hell,” he yells in another, as flames shoot above his head.

Reruns of his 1980s-era NBC sitcom disappeared from television last year. Mr. Cosby is not exactly family entertainment in 2019.