In 1946, Disney produced a film that integrated animated and live-action segments together. It wasn’t the first time Disney did this – in the silent era, Disney’s “Alice” shorts featured a live-action actress interacting with animated characters. But this film WAS Disney’s first full-length attempt to create such a process, and it would be replicated in films like Mary Poppins, Pete’s Dragon, Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
This film won a special Academy Award for its lead actor, James Baskett, as well as a competitive Oscar for one of the songs in the film’s catalog. Heck, there’s a section at the Disney parks that features the animated characters from this movie.
So you think to yourself … maybe during this social isolation period, it might be worth checking out this film, let me fire up the old Disney+ streaming service and watch it, right?
You can’t. Not on Disney+. And you can’t buy a DVD copy of the film from Disney. And although Disney has shown the film several times in theaters since its original 1946 run, it last made an appearance in a cinema in 1986. That’s when the film went back to the Disney vault and the vault got sealed with a concrete slab.
The film I’m talking about … is this film.
This is Song of the South. The movie takes place during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, and features the stories of Uncle Remus, a storyteller whose fables are as essential to history as Aesop or Nasruddin.
But as you can understand, this film is EXTREMELY controversial. There are more than enough scenes in this film that – while they might have been considered acceptable for 1946 audiences, are extremely cringe-worthy today. The white characters in the movie speak in clearly enunciated English, with barely a hint of a Southern drawl, while all the black characters in the movie speak in such a stagnant, exaggerated dialect that it drips with ignorance and offensiveness. And although the animation is up to Disney’s standards, one of the Uncle Remus stories – “The Tar Baby” – is just straight-up vulgar, to the point where even when the film was shown overseas, that scene was trimmed from the film print.
Over the years, Disney has done what it could to filet some of the taste from the rot. You can often see the “Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah” animation scene in video compilations (that was the song that won the Oscar for Best Song), while the characters of Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear can be found at Disney’s Splash Mountain rides. But that’s been essentially it.
And I understand why. It’s that same feeling you get when you watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s and you wince through Mickey Rooney’s “Engrish” performance of a Asian man. Or a film like Gone With the Wind, where it seems that the most memorable line after “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” is “But Miss Scarlett, I don’t know nothing about birthing no babies!” Ugh.
It’s racism of the time, and just because we’re generations away from it today, doesn’t make it any less racist.
Again, there have been requests that Disney actually show this film at some point – maybe as part of a limited edition boxed set, or as part of a discussion on race relations in film. But that hasn’t happened. And it won’t. Even as recently as this week, Disney+ said they would not add Song of the South to its lineup. And that’s even with adding Frozen 2 a few months earlier than its scheduled appearance on the streaming service.
If you’re truly desperate to see this film, to understand what the controversy is all about, there are some options available to you. A film restorer named Notelu restored a vintage print of Song of the South and uploaded it to the archive.org website at this link. I’ve seen bootleg VHS and DVD copies being sold online and at swap meets, with the video quality of these releases ranging from poor to barely watchable.
My personal feeling about Song of the South is this – it is a technically stunning movie, and the mixture of live-action and animation is seamless and breathtaking. That being said, the movie’s plotline is full of awful and insidious tropes – Uncle Remus as the stereotypical “Magical Negro” of old, the children in the film are cloying one-dimensional characters, and the character Hattie McDaniel plays is almost a note-for-note recreation of her appearance as Mammy in Gone With the Wind, so much so that I thought her appearance was as a spinoff.
And although the animated sequences are, as I said before, breathtaking, they are also filled with racist tropes. And I’m talking about, first and foremost, the story of the Tar Baby, in which Br’er Fox creates a tar-shaped doll to trap Br’er Rabbit, so that Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear can eat Br’er Rabbit for supper. Oh, and one more thing. Throughout the movie, Uncle Remus is saying the characters’ names as a drawled “Brother Rabbit” and “Brother Bear” and “Brother Fox,” but apparently over time their names became “Br’er,” to rhyme with chair and there and scare. Yeah … no.
So if you’re really curious to see this film, you can go to the archive.org link I provided. But bear in mind – this is the year 2020, and this film is NOT the same type of Disney movie you should watch with your children. Yes, I’m saying that. Song of the South falls into the category of films like Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will – technically proficient films with storylines and characters that subvert and foul the final result.