Live action: Harve Foster
Animation: Wilfred Jackson
Live action: Morton Grant/Maurice Rapf/Dalton S. Reymond
Animation: Bill Peet/George Stallings/Ralph Wright
Oh, boy. Here’s this one. The one Disney movie that has been vilified beyond all others. And maybe that’s deserved. I don’t know. To be honest, I don’t find it any more racist than, say, Gone With The Wind (which is pretty damn racist) and that’s still taught in schools. Well…some schools, anyway.
Song Of The South has been locked away in the Disney vault basically since 1986. As of right now, there are no plans to ever release it in any form in the US. It’s been available in bootleg form from Japanese laserdiscs, though.
The general gist of the story is this: Reconstruction Era Georgia. Uncle Remus (James Baskett) is a former slave who still works for his former masters. Little Johnny (Bobby Driscoll) is visiting his grandparents on the plantation. He thinks it’s a vacation, but he’s really going to be there for an extended period while his dad goes off to work for a while. He gets to know Uncle Remus and, best of all, his stories about Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear. Rabbit is wily and kinda lazy. Fox thinks he’s a super genius. Bear is absolutely dumb.
Of course, the Uncle Remus part is the live-action portion of the film, while the Br’ers are all animated…and the better part of the movie. Honestly, outside of making it seem as if the “master/slave” relationship was all rosey after the Civil War was over, the biggest sin of this movie is that it’s pretty boring. The live-action story is completely unmemorable. It’s got something to do with the kid listening to Remus’s stories, some bullies, and the family being sort of anti-Remus. Then Johnny runs away for a bit and almost dies. The family blames Uncle Remus. Johnny comes back to life and tells them what really happened. All is right in the world.
Something like that. I’ve seen this movie twice and the live-action parts lost me both times.
But the animated stories about Br’er Rabbit and his “friends” are great! Those have been shown in different iterations since the initial release of the film. And, of course, the music is great. “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” is a classic that you can’t get away from. Ever.
This movie could have been made tons better by just having James Baskett tell the stories to a group of kids without some weird story that ignores how terrible slavery really was and how things just WEREN’T alright the year after it was abolished. Baskett is a great storyteller and a not half-bad actor. He totally could have carried the movie on his own without a bunch of white people getting in the way.
Baskett was an interesting dude. He had acted in a few things before this, but was never particularly popular. He played a recurring character on the Amos ‘n’ Andy radio show and then tried out for a small voiceover role in Song Of The South. Disney was so impressed with him that he gave him the lead role and had him voice Br’er Fox. (He also filled in as Br’er Rabbit in one sequence.) When the film was released, his performance was often singled out as the best part of the film, while also saying that his role was demeening and beneath him. On the plus side, this was the first serious leading role for an African American in a general audience film.
Sadly, Baskett died not long after the release. He was already sick during filming. After his death, he was awarded an Honorary Academy Award (the first for an African American man). Disney stayed in touch with his family and financially supported them for the rest of his life, sending the kids to college and taking care of Mrs Baskett in her old age.
I fully understand why Disney (the company) is hiding this movie away. It’s a product of its incredibly racist times. And, no, kids shouldn’t be subjected to a film that has this much baggage. But, just like I said with Fantasia, I want adults and students to be able to watch the movie in the right context. After all: Birth Of A Nation and Gone With The Wind are still very readily available. And they’re probably worse than this.
If you can get your hands on a copy of the Japanese bootleg, check it out. If not…well, you can get a hold of the good parts on various collections here and there. You really won’t be missing anything.