When I was a kid, I went to the theater for a re-release of the Disney classic Song of the South. At the time, I didn’t realize that there would be any controversy surrounding the film—I was just a kid enjoying a movie. Years later, however, it became obvious to a lot of Disney fans that the studio never would bring back the film—at least in the United States. The reason is that some sensibilities would be offended because of some stereotypes in the film. After all, since the movie came out in the 1940s, times have changed and the idea of ‘ol Uncle Remus entertaining us with a story involving a ‘tar baby’ was now passé and offensive. However, I was curious. I’d loved the film as a kid and wondered if it really was that racist that it should effectively be banned. The problem, though, was how to find the movie. It’s never been released on DVD or videotape in the United States. So what to do? Fortunately some time back I found that there is an answer—and the answer lies, of all places, in Japan. It seems that long, long ago when Laser discs were in vogue, the film WAS released in Japan and was available to watch in English. So, my quest was to find some Japanese person with the film and see if they’d let me see this contraband for myself. Well, I won't tell you exactly who and how, but I was able to finally see this film again—the first time I’d seen it in about 40 years. I’d say more but I’ve been sworn to secrecy—plus they then used hypnotic drugs on me to insure I’d keep the secret.
The first question I will answer is if the film is any good. After all, I saw films that I loved as a kid that would drive me to suicide today (the original Dr. Doolittle comes to mind). Well, the film was marvelous technically speaking. Using both live action and animation, the Disney artists and filmmakers were able to craft a story that seamlessly integrated the real and fictional. And, as far as the story goes, it was very, very sweet and easy to love—and among their best films of the 1940s. In many ways, it played like another wonderful Disney film, So Dear to My Heart—which also combined a nice live-action story with some animated characters—though the characters were far less important to this film and were added more as an afterthought. However, in Song of the South, the animations are a very, very important and lovable part of the story. Additionally, the acting of James Baskett as Uncle Remus was fabulous and this relatively obscure actor deserves his due.
The next question is a tough one. It’s hard for anyone to categorically say that the movie is or isn’t racist since it’s so subjective. However, in the movie’s defense, the little boy who stars in the film, Bobby Driscoll, is a white kid—and his best friends are the black kids in the community. And, of course, he adores old Uncle Remus—who is a very kind and gentle man. But, to be fair, it also presents a very rosy picture of the post Civil War South—one where blacks and whites coexist and seem like equals when it was anything but that way in reality.
So here is my solution--release the film—either on DVD or in theaters. Then, add a prologue to it like Disney has already done with some of their old cartoon shorts. For example, folks today would most likely be shocked to see Donald Duck as a Nazi like he is in the Academy Award-winning “Der Fuhrer’s Face” as well as Donald smoking. So, they had the wonderful film historian Leonard Maltin provide a prologue to their Complete Donald Duck DVD sets—explaining how times have changed and how it’s important we do not throw away our history. Give Song of the South its context and explain its deficiencies and controversies surrounding it…but please, Disney, release this film! As a retired history teacher, I love the idea of preserving all of our past in order to learn about it and learn how we’ve changed for the better. I think we are adult enough to see the film this way for ourselves.
Rating for Film: A
Rating for Disney’s handling of the film: D
Article by Martin Hafer, Film CriticShare: