If you ever ride one of Disney’s Splash Mountain rides, you’re seeing the characters from this movie, which has remained locked in the Disney vault — at least in America, as it has been released in Japan, Germany and the UK on VHS and DVD — because in the words of executive chairman and former CEO Bob Iger, Song of the South is “not appropriate in today’s world.”
Let me explain to you how wrong the world once was and pretty much still is. A special Academy Award was given to James Baskett “for his able and heart-warming characterization of Uncle Remus, friend and story teller to the children of the world.” He was the first African-American man to ever win any type of Oscar. But when the movie premiered in Atlanta, the actor was prohibited from attending because the city was racially segregated by law. This wasn’t during the Civil War. This was during your parent’s or grandparent’s lifetimes. (Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American woman to win, be nominated, or even be allowed to attend — and, even then, only with special permission — the Academy Awards, for 1939’s Gone With the Wind).
When the movie was released, Walter Francis White — the executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) — sent newspapers a statement that said, “The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People recognizes in Song of the South remarkable artistic merit in the music and in the combination of living actors and the cartoon technique. It regrets, however, that in an effort neither to offend audiences in the north or south, the production helps to perpetuate a dangerously glorified picture of slavery. Making use of the beautiful Uncle Remus folklore, Song of the South unfortunately gives the impression of an idyllic master–slave relationship which is a distortion of the facts.” He had not seen the film nor realized that it was set after the end of the Civl War. Perhaps a more balanced view came from his fellow NAACP member Norma Jensen who remarked that the film was “so artistically beautiful that it is difficult to be provoked over the clichés, yet it has all the clichés in the book.”
The major issue is that the film features the subserviant status of black characters, the way they dress, their exaggerated dialect and other archaic depections of black people. The stories come from Uncle Remus by Joel Chandler Harris, who was a racial reconciliation activist writer. That doesn’t help the film’s overall tone.
The major thrust of the movie is that a white child named Johnny is inspired by the tales of Bre’e Rabbit, Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear that are told by Remus. His mother doesn’t understand and thinks that the stories are making her son — who is already dealing with the seperation of his parents — too much of a rebel. Uncle Remus attempts to leave the plantation as a result, but when Johnny is hit by a bull, only his the stories and songs of the old man can save his young friend.
The funny thing is that as dated as the movie’s attitudes seemed in 1946, it was still re-released in U.S. theaters as late as 1986, when it seemed incredibly wrong. And while Disney has never released the film on home video in the U.S., it eventually will. That’s because the film will go into public domain in 2039 and Disney will lose all copyright to the film if it is not physically released in theaters, on hoem video or via Disney+.
That said — who knows? I recently watched the film and can see the issues, but when Whoopi Goldberg was made a Disney Legend, she said that she hoped that the movie would be reissued so that people could start a dialogue about it.
Today, characters and songs from the film appear in various Disney media yet children never associate them with this film, which would never be seen if it weren’t for the internet and convention DVD sellers.
I wish there could be an assessment of this film and a discussion of what is wrong about it, while understanding that many of Uncle Remus’ lessons could teach us plenty. But this film remains a media landmine and even the whispers of a home release in 2007 led to controversy and threats of legal action.
You should see it for yourself, make up your own mind and treat everyone with the dignity they deserve. But you already knew that.