If there is another Disney released movie that’s more controversial than Song of the South, I’ve never heard of it. When I decided to start this Disney Associated Movies blogathon, I briefly considered skipping this one because of its reputation. Yet I’m enough of a completionist (and possibly masochist) to sit through this anyway. Some critics have described this movie as racist and offensive. It’s to the point where this movie has never seen a home video release in North America.
Cultural historian Jason Sperb describes the film as “one of Hollywood’s most resiliently offensive racist texts.” Richard B. Dier from The Afro-American was “thoroughly disgusted”. Yet at the same time, Herman Hill from The Pittsburgh Corrier (an African American run newspaper) felt that Song of the South would “Prove of inestimable goodwill in the furthering of interracial relations”, and considered critics of the film to be “unadulterated hogwash symptomatic of the unfortunate racial neurosis that seems to be gripping so many of our humourless brethren these days.” There are other members of the black press who praised this movie as well, both back when it released and in retrospective reviews.
With such a mixed reception, I had no idea what to expect. Well, other than the music in the movie must not be too bad considering it won the Academy Award for Best Original Song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”, while James Basket received an honorary Academy Award for his performance as Uncle Remus. Also, Splash Mountain in Disney World is based on this movie, even if it’s only based on the animated portions.
So what exactly is Song of the South? It’s a live-action/animation hybrid movie based on the collection of Uncle Remus stories as adapted by Joel Chandler Harris. Uncle Remus is a fictional character and a narrator for a bunch of black American folktales, meant to represent the struggle in the Southern United States during the plantation era. The framing of the era was not seen as racist at the time, in fact many saw Harris as being ahead of his time in promoting racial reconciliation, but by the mid-20th century some people considered the “old uncle’s” dialect as a demeaning and patronizing stereotype.
Walt Disney wanted to produce a film based on the Uncle Remus tales for a while, although it wasn’t until 1939 that he began negotiating with the Harris family for the film rights. Filming finally began in 1944, after acquiring the rights. Most of the movie is in live-action, but with a handful of stories told in animation, and even a couple sequences that combined live-action with animation. The movie doesn’t really say anything about slavery one way or another, but there are hints that it takes place during the Reconstruction era (after slavery was abolished). While most of the movie takes place on a plantation, it’s made clear that Uncle Remus is free to leave whenever he wants.
The story is mainly about Jonny, a seven-year-old boy who lives at his grandmother’s plantation in Georgia for the summer, while his father is working in Atlanta to continue his controversial editorials in a newspaper. Jonny is upset by his father’s departure and thinks of running away. Early in his escape, he meets Uncle Remus. They soon befriend each other. Jonny is fascinated by all the tales Remus tells, and he quickly grows to look up to Remus. He also befriends Toby, a young black boy, and Ginny, a poor white girl. Some of the other adults misunderstand Remus’s intentions, leading to a couple of minor conflicts. But for the most part, the white and black people in the movie are portrayed as getting along fairly well.
I admit that I don’t know all that much about the slavery era. As a Canadian we never really had black slavery, nor did we study it much in school. The British Empire completely abolished slavery before Canada was even born as a country, and even by the mid 1700’s, the lower courts didn’t recognize slave ownership. One of the few things I do know is that some of the slaves happily worked for their former owners for actual pay afterwards … if they were treated well anyway. Some even managed to eventually buy the plantations they used to work for. Because I never deeply studied American history in school or in my own free time, it’s really not a subject I’m familiar with. Keep that in mind when I say I can’t really see much wrong with this movie from a racial standpoint. Uncle Remus’s character is treated with respect by the movie’s script. He’s portrayed as friendly, wise and really good with kids. White and black people generally get along in this movie and they respect each other’s opinions. The only jerks in this movie are these two older boys who bully Jonny and his friends.
(This is a really well done shot blending animation and live action)
That’s not to say this won’t offend anyone. Song of the South remains a very controversial movie. Despite how it may have good intentions behind it, it does tread on some very thin ground. Beyond that, this movie seems to mainly appeal to younger kids to begin with. The tales are more whimsical than they are exciting and fun. The drama is never really that deep. I never found this movie to be all that exciting, and in a lot of ways it feels more dated than it does like a classic. It could just be that the movie is not for me. Maybe there are problems with it and I’m not fully aware of what they are. But when Whoopi Goldberg expressed a desire for Song of the South to be re-released publicly shortly after being inaugurated as a Disney Legend, I find it hard to see this movie as harmful.
This wasn’t nearly as bad as I dreaded.
Next up is So Dear My Heart, which I know nothing about. After that it’s a classic I haven’t seen in at least 20 years, Marry Poppins. That’s followed by Bedknobs and Broomsticks (also never seen), and then another movie I remember as a kid called Pete’s Dragon. Of the 14 movies on this list, I’ve previously seen 5 of them. Don’t expect me to pump out these posts at the same rate as the first three though – from this point on there will be a lot more to talk about with each movie.