Thrown into the Briar Patch – The Uneasy and Confusing Controversy of Disney’s “Song of the South”


What does it take to blacklist a whole film?  Walt Disney’s 1946 film Song of the South has the dubious distinction of being the only film in the company’s history to be declared un-releasable. Many people state that it’s because of the perception that the film has a racist message and that it sugarcoats and simplifies the issue of slavery in an offensive way.  I would argue that it’s not right to label a film one way without ever having seen it, but unfortunately Disney is reluctant to even let that happen.  What is interesting is the fact that by putting a self-imposed ban on the distribution of the film, Disney is actually perpetuating the notion that Song of the South is a dangerous movie, due to the stigma it holds as being the one film that they refuse to make public.  Disney, more than any other media company in the world, is built upon their wholesome image, and for some reason they are afraid to let their guard down and air out their dirty laundry.  But, is Song of the South really the embarrassment that everyone says it is, or is it merely a misunderstood masterpiece. Thankfully, I have seen the film myself (thank you Japanese bootlegs and YouTube), so I can actually pass judgment on it, and like most other controversial things, you gain a much different perspective once you remove all the noise surrounding it.
For a film that has gained such a notorious reputation over the years, the actual history of the production is relatively free of controversy.  Walt Disney wanted to adapt the Uncle Remus Stories, which were popular African-American folktales published by Joel Chandler Harris in post-Reconstruction Georgia.  Disney said that these stories were among his favorites as a child and he was eager to bring to life the moralistic tales through animated shorts starring the characters Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Bear.  The film was a breakthrough production for the Disney company as it was a mix of live action and animation.  Sequences where the live action character of Uncle Remus interacts with the cast of animated critters were astonishing to audiences at the visual effects were highly praised at the time; remember this was almost 20 years before Mary Poppins (1964), which was also a hybrid film in itself.  Walt Disney treated the subject material with great reverence and he brought in the best talent possible to work on the film, including Oscar-winning Cinematographer Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane, The Grapes of Wrath).  Disney was especially proud of the casting of James Baskett as Uncle Remus, and he even campaigned heavily to earn Mr. Baskett an Oscar nomination for his performance;  Baskett wasn’t nominated, but he did win a special honorary Oscar in recognition of his work on the film.  The movie was a financial success and it did earn another Oscar for the song “Zip-a-Dee-Do-Dah,” which has become a sort of an unofficial anthem for the Disney company.
Surprisingly, the film would be re-released constantly for decades afterwards.  It even provided the inspiration for what is still one of Disneyland’s most popular attractions: Splash Mountain.  It wouldn’t be until after a short theatrical run in 1985 that Disney began their policy of keeping the film out of the public eye.  Not surprisingly, this was also around the same time that a new corporate team, led by Michael Eisner, had taken over operation of the company, and with them a whole new mindset centered around brand appeal.  While Song of the South would sometimes be called out in the past by organizations like the NAACP for it’s quaint portrayal of post-slavery life, the film was not considered an outright embarrassment.  It was merely seen as a product of its time and was much more notable for its animated sequences than for its actual story line.  But once Disney made it their policy to shelve the film for good based on the perception that the film made light of slavery, that’s when all controversy started heating up.  To this day, Song of the South has yet to receive a home video release here in the United States, and Disney is still continuing to stand by their decision to not make the film public.
So, having seen the actual film, it has given me the impression that Disney didn’t ban the film just because of its content, but rather it was an attempt to keep their image as clean as possible.  My own impression of the film is this; it’s harmless.  Don’t get me wrong, it is not the most progressive depiction of African-American life in America and some of the portrayals of the ex-slave characters are certainly out of date to the point of being cringe-inducing.  But it’s no worse than a film like Gone with the Wind (1939), and that film is considered one of the greatest movies of all times.  If Song of the South has a flaw it would be that it’s boring.  The movie clearly shows Walt Disney’s lack of experience in live action film-making, as the main story of the film is very dull and flimsy. Basically it follows the life of a young southern boy, played by Disney child star Bobby Driscoll (Peter Pan) as he deals with the break-up of his family and the finding of solace in the stories told to him by a former slave, Uncle Remus.  There’s not much more to it than that.  Where the film really shines is in its animated sequences, which are just as strong as anything else Disney was making in the post-War era.  The art style in particular really does stand out, and conveys the beauty of the Southern countryside perfectly.
Somehow, I believe that there’s a different reason why the film has garnered the reputation that it has.  Disney is a big company that has built itself around an image.  Unfortunately, when you go to certain extremes to keep your image as flawless as it can be, it’s going to make other people want to tear that down even more.  There are a lot of people out there who hate Disney purely on their wholesome image alone, and when they find cracks in that facade, they are going to keep on exploiting that whenever possible.  Walt Disney himself has been called everything from racist to anti-Semitic, which if you actually dig deeper into any of those claims, you’ll find that there’s little truth to them and that they’re usually attributed to people who came from rival companies or had a contract dispute with Mr. Disney.
Unfortunately, by trying so hard to sweep so much under the rug, the Disney company opens itself to these kinds of accusations; and they have no one else to blame for them but themselves. Walt Disney was not a flawless man by any means and the company has made embarrassingly short sighted decisions in the past; hell they’re still making them now (John Carter, The Lone Ranger). But, their flaws are no worse than the ones that plague other companies in Hollywood.  Just look at the racial stereotypes in old Warner Brothers cartoons; there was an actual war propaganda Looney Tunes short called Bugs Nips the Nips, which is about as racist as you can get.  The only difference is that Warner Brothers has not shied away from it’s past embarrassments, and have made them public while stating the historical context of their productions.  As a result, Warner Brothers has avoided the “racist” labels entirely and their image has been kept intact.  For some reason, Disney doesn’t want to do that with Song of the South, despite the fact that Disney has made public some of their older shorts that are far more overtly racially insensitive than the movie. There are shorts from the 1930’s that showed Mickey Mouse in black face, and yet they still got a video release as part of the Walt Disney Treasures DVD Collection.  I think the reason why Song of the South didn’t get the same treatment is because it’s such a polished and earnest production, and it’s probably easier to dismiss the silly cartoon for it’s flaws because they’re less significant.
Regardless of how it accurately it addresses the issues of slavery and the African-American experience, the Song of the South should at least be given the opportunity to be seen.  It’s a part of the Disney company’s history whether they like it or not, and to sweep it aside is doing a disservice to the Disney legacy as a whole.  Being a white man, I certainly can’t predict what the reaction from the African-American community will be, but is that any excuse to hide the film from them.  Maybe black audiences will come to the film with an open mind; quite a few at least.  It just doesn’t make any sense why this is the film that has been deemed un-watchable when other films like Gone with the Wind, which is very similar content wise, is heralded as a classic.  Even D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) is available on home video, and that film openly endorses the Ku Klux Klan.  Song of the South is so harmless by comparison and the worst that you can say about it is that it’s out of date.
As a film, I would recommend everyone to give it at least a watch, if you can.  The animated sequences are definitely worth seeing on their own, and I think some people will appreciate the film as a sort of cinematic time capsule.  While the African-American characters are portrayed in a less than progressive way, I don’t think that it’s the fault of the actors.  James Baskett in particular does the most that he can with the role, and it’s hard not to like him in the film.  He also does double duty playing both Uncle Remus and the voice of Brer Fox, which shows the range that he had as a performer.  The music is also exceptional with songs like “The Laughing Place,” “Sooner or Later,” “How Do You Do?” and the Oscar-winning “Zip-a-Dee-Do-Dah;” crowd-pleasers in every way. It’s definitely not deserving of the reputation it’s gotten.  Disney’s reluctance to make the film available just goes to show the folly of trying to keep a flawless image, when it would actually serve them better to have it out in the open.  Sometimes you just need to take your medicine and let things happen.  After all, aren’t the people who ride Splash Mountain everyday at Disneyland going to wonder some day what film it’s all based on?