About the Movie "Song of the South"

By Contributing Writer

  • Overview

    Perhaps the most controversial large project ever made by the Walt Disney Company, Song of the South remains an item of debate. There are as many people who want to see the film returned to a place of honor as a cherished part of Disney's history, as there are detractors who find it offensive and never want it shown again. The facts have become mixed in with the myths over time, as is often the case with anything controversial, but the conversation still continues over the Song of the South.
  • History

    The origin of the stories that were used to create "Song of the South" come from a Civil War-era writer by the name of Joel Chandler Harris. Mr. Harris grew up during the Civil War in Georgia and befriended many African-American men and women who, during his childhood, worked as slaves. One older man in particular, whom he referred to as "Uncle George," became a very close friend of his and would tell him traditional African-American folk stories. Harris began writing these down and compiling them, and in 1879 he published his first story in the Atlanta Constitution. He changed the name of the storyteller to Uncle Remus and began publishing these stories on a regular basis. They featured many reoccurring characters, including Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear.
  • The Film

    In the 1940's, Walt Disney (who had grown up loving these classic folk tales) decided to make a movie out of the Uncle Remus stories, and Song of the South went into production. The film was half animated and half live action. The Uncle Remus character, portrayed by James Baskett (who won an Oscar for his portrayal), appeared in live-action sequences with two young children whom he told the Br'er stories to. The stories, themselves, were animated. The narrative behind the storytelling sequences was that the young boy, Little Johnny, was taken to his grandmother's plantation for a family trip. Little Johnny's parents were going to get a divorce and, distraught about the inevitable breakup, he runs off with his sister. Little Johnny and his sister run into former slave Uncle Remus, who now lives freely on the plantation (though, no note of this is made in the film), and in an effort to cheer the children up, he tells them a series of Br'er stories.
  • Controversy

    Almost immediately, there was a public backlash even without anyone having seen the film. During a time when segregation still existed but slavery had been abolished, the idea of a main character that was a former slave (though many thought he was still a slave in the film) did not sit well with many. Once released, traditionalists of Harris's original works complained that the Disney version was a watered-down version of the original material and did not do justice to the African-American folk style of storytelling and music. The NAACP had mixed feelings about the film, simultaneously acknowledging its merit as a well-made piece of cinema, but also critiquing the portrayal of Uncle Remus as a push-over "Step and Fetchit" figure that made slavery seem idyllic in some way.
  • Rereleases

    The movie premiered on November 12, 1946 to mixed reviews. Disney has re-released the film several times since then in 1956, 1972, 1980 and 1986. There has been no talk of another re-release, theatrically, since then. In March 2007, the CEO of Disney, Robert Iger, talked about Song of the South publicly for the first time since its 1986 re-release. He addressed the fact that he often fields questions concerning the eventual re-release of the film. He said that a re-release would be tricky with a film made so many years ago that dealt with very sensitive issues, but that the film was being reviewed by the Disney team and was being considered for redistribution.
  • Misconceptions

    While it is true that Song of the South has never been released in the United States on video of any kind, there are an immense amount of wild rumors that are not true about this film. One misconception is that the NAACP continues to pressure Disney to keep the film from being released again. While the NAACP made public its displeasure with the film when it was released in 1946, the organization has made no public statements about the film since then during any of its four re-releases. Another major misconception is that the Uncle Remus character is actually a slave in the film. All of the original Br'er stories were written by Harris post-Civil War and post-abolition, making the Uncle Remus character a free man. No effort was made by Disney, however, to make a point of this in the film--thus the controversy. Perhaps the strangest myth about the film is that actor Bill Cosby bought the rights to Song of the South to prevent it from ever being shown again.
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