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Last week, Disney CEO Bob Iger told a room full of Disney stockholders that the plan for the upcoming Disney+ streaming service was to have Disney’s entire motion picture library available shortly after launch. Clearly, this is an exciting concept for both Disney fans, as well as movie fans in general, as Disney has a library stretching back decades. However, it seems highly unlikely that literally every Disney movie will ever actually be on the service, as there’s at least one movie that will almost certainly be missing: 1946’s Song of the South.
Whether or not you’ve ever actually seen the movie, you likely know at least something of the controversy that surrounds it. Last released in theaters in 1986, the film hasn’t been shown publicly since then, and has never received a VHS or DVD release in North America. When Bob Iger was asked about the film during the same Disney stockholders’ meeting in 2010, he called the film “fairly offensive” and has said we should not expect to see the movie released any time soon, if ever.
Song of the South focuses on a young boy named Johnny who has traveled with his parents from Atlanta to his grandmother’s plantation in an undisclosed Southern location. Upon arriving there, Johnny learns his father is turning around and going home. It seems Johnny parents will be separating for a while, perhaps something to do with his father’s controversial editorship of a newspaper. It’s all very vague and never explained.
Johnny attempts to run away back to his father, but he’s stopped by the kindly Uncle Remus, an elderly black man (James Baskett), who tells him a story about Br’er Rabbit and a time he tried running away from his problems, and only found greater ones. Johnny decides to stay, if only to hear more stories from Uncle Remus.
Johnny makes a friend in a young girl his age, Jenny, but runs afoul of her bully older brothers. Every time Johnny finds himself in trouble, Uncle Remus is there with a story that relates to the issue and helps Johnny through it.
While the stories of Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear are animated, Song of the South is still very much a live action movie. The animated sequences cover no more than about 20 minutes, broken up in three segments, of the 90-minute film. Song of the South has been the subject of controversy since it was released back in 1946, and that controversy has only increased since then.
The first problem with Song of the South is that it never makes it entirely clear what the relationship is between the black and white characters in the film. While the movie is supposed to be set during the era of Reconstruction, it never comes out and simply says this. Many audiences have viewed the relationship between the black and white characters as being that of slaves and masters, and there’s little evidence to discount this view. The closest the movie comes is when, 10 minutes before the film is over, Uncle Remus decides to leave the plantation. The fact he’s allowed to do so is the only indication he’s not a slave.
Regardless, the relationship between black and white characters is portrayed as ideal. Everybody is happy, even though one group here is clearly rich and the other is clearly poor.
Beyond that, Song of the South deals with the use of racist dialects, as well as the use of the trope that would later become known as the “magical negro.” Even the animated sequences aren’t free of controversy. One of Br’er Fox’s plans to capture Br’er Rabbit involves the use of a golem made of black tar which the fox refers to as a ...tar baby. Yeah, this thing can get rough.
On the other side of the controversy, however, is a movie that has a lot going for it. It’s the second feature film in Disney history to see human actors performing with animated characters in the same frame, and it’s done to far greater effect than it was in The Three Caballeros.
The film is a two-time Oscar winner. The song “Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah” won the award for Best Original Song and James Baskett was given an honorary Oscar for his performance as Uncle Remus.
Since its final theatrical release in 1986, Disney has largely tried to forget that Song of the South exists. While the popular Splash Mountain attraction found at Disneyland and Walt Disney World takes its inspiration and music from the film, the ride focuses exclusively on the exploits of Br’er Rabbit and other animal characters. Uncle Remus does not appear and he is not mentioned.
Today, there are two minds about what to do with Song of the South. Many believe the film should simply stay buried. It’s a product of an era and attitudes about race that we all understand today were wrong. Bringing the film back would only remind people of something we should forget.
Others, however, would like to focus on the film’s positives, such as the popular music and the revolutionary animation. Many do feel there’s value to the film historically and that it should exist. Perhaps Song of the South could be brought back, maybe on a disc that also includes additional material like documentaries and retrospectives that put the film in context and accept the film has elements worthy of criticism, but uses them as a teaching moment.
Of course, if that does happen, then audiences will learn something else that’s important about Song of the South. It’s not very good. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but it isn’t actually a great film. The animated segments really are fun (tar babies notwithstanding), but the live-action sequences just draw on and on and you get really bored waiting for the cartoons to come back on.
I’m not going to pretend like I know what the right decision to make here is. However, I’m also not sure that Disney knows either. Clearly, the studio's plan is to leave Song of the South in the vault for now. Maybe a compelling argument will be made to bring it back one day, but I don’t expect that day will come this year. When Disney+ brings every other Disney movie right to your TV, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to The Cat From Outer Space and more, don’t expect Br’er Rabbit or Uncle Remus to come with them.