News Archives: L.A. Times Article

Published May 7, 2003
Archived May 7, 2003

Should 'dated' films see the light of today?

'Song of the South' fans want Disney to release its ode to 'Uncle Remus.' Doing so would turn up the volume on the nation's folklore vs. racism debate.

By Donald Liebenson, Special to The Times

Fueled by mainstream acceptance of the DVD format, Disney has been scouring its vaults to bring more product to market. So collectors can get DVD sets devoted to Mickey Mouse cartoons, the complete Goofy oeuvre and the "Davy Crockett" episodes of the "Disneyland" TV series. Also quietly reappearing on VHS has been a selection of Disney's baby-boomer era live-action films, including "Greyfriars Bobby," "The Moon-Spinners" and "The Computer Who Wore Tennis Shoes."

But if you think they've released everything of interest, think again.

"Song of the South," a 1946 Academy Award-winning feature, has not been seen in American theaters since 1986, and remains the one Disney classic that has yet to be released in this country on home video.

Ask supporters and critics of the film why, and you get speculation and rumor. Ask Disney, and you get "zip," without the doo-dah.

Buena Vista Home Entertainment issued a statement for this story: "Walt Disney Home Entertainment uses many factors to evaluate which movies in its rich library will be issued onto video and DVD formats. ...To this point, we have not discounted nor committed to any distribution window concerning this title."

Most likely, the film remains unreleased due to sensitivity over the stereotypical portrayals of its African American characters and its perceived benign image of slavery, which have embroiled the film in controversy since its theatrical release.

To its supporters, it is precious American folklore. To its critics, it is a racist film. And Disney, observed Leonard Maltin, film historian and author of "The Disney Films," "is a big target."

Not that its unavailability has stopped Disney from profiting from "Song of the South." The clip of the film's Oscar-winning signature song is included in "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah," a volume of the best-selling "Sing-A-Long Songs" series, which is available on VHS. The song has also appeared on several Disney audio compilations. Meanwhile, the Disney theme park attraction Splash Mountain features the film's principal animated characters: Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear.

But there is no context for generations of children who have not had access to the film.

"I'm sad," it has not been released, said Ruth Warrick, 86, who costarred in "Song of the South," "because it leaves out a whole chapter in the history of Walt Disney. The film is probably one of his crowning points."

A labor of love, "Song of the South" was conceived by Disney as a celebration of Joel Chandler Harris' "Uncle Remus" stories that inspired him and enchanted his children.

"It was a film he really wanted to do," recalled Diane Disney Miller, his daughter. "My dad quoted so much from Uncle Remus' logic and philosophy."

"Song of the South" stars Bobby Driscoll as Johnny, a young boy who accompanies his mother (Warrick) to his grandmother's plantation. Devastated by his parents' separation, he decides to run away. But he becomes enthralled by Uncle Remus (James Baskett, who was honored with a special Academy Award), whose stories about the wily Br'er Rabbit teach the boy valuable life lessons.

It is not clear in the film if the story takes place before or after the Civil War (although the synopsis on the box of a French VHS edition states, "We are in Georgia, south of the United States, after the Civil War"), or if Remus is a slave or servant.

From its opening day, the film sparked protests. Members of the Theatre Chapter of the National Negro Congress picketed the film with signs that read, "We fought for Uncle Sam, not Uncle Tom," according to newspaper reports. A New York Times critic dismissed the Remus character as "just the sweetest and most wistful darky slave that ever stepped out of a sublimely unreconstructed fancy of the Old South."

The National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) acknowledged the film's "artistic merit" but chastised it for perpetuating the stereotypical "idyllic master-slave relationship" — a position the organization maintains to this day, according to a spokesperson.

But the film has its champions. Christian Willis, 22, of Dana Point founded songofthe south.net, a Web site devoted to "Song"-related collectibles and to raising awareness of the film. Willis saw the film when he was 6 years old and calls it "a cherished childhood memory."

"Originally my site was only going to show memorabilia," he said, "but so many people contacted me about the film, I decided to expand my Web site. This is a landmark in motion picture history. This was a project Walt Disney wanted to do for years and years. I don't think it's right that Disney should withhold it from the public."

Willis' site has a link to Uncle RemusPages.com, a Web site started by fellow enthusiast James McKimson, 28, of Pasadena. The site features a petition to lobby for the film's home video release. Currently, more than 30,000 have affixed their names.

Maltin is also in favor of the film's home video release. "I'm very fond of the movie," he said. "I think it has been unfairly maligned and misread. [Some] people reject the film out of hand, and I think that's a shame. It denies people of all colors the ability to see this warm and uplifting movie."

For critics of the film, the exaggerated dialects and scenes of the black sharecroppers singing as they heigh-(di)-ho to work in the fields are anything but "satisfactual."

"It was a very racist film," said Todd Boyd, an African American professor of critical studies at the USC School of Cinema-Television. "The character of Uncle Remus is a throwback. He affirms every negative and demeaning stereotype from slavery about Southern black men being happy-go-lucky, passive, carefree and non-threatening."

But proponents of the movie counter that the Uncle Remus tales, as so memorably animated in the film, are a vital part of African American folklore. Clarence Page, nationally syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune who also is African American, called the film one of his favorites from his childhood and one he had hoped to share with his son.

"To quote Bill Cosby, so much black history has been lost, stolen or strayed," he said in an interview. "There's a deep African tradition in 'Song of the South.' Br'er Rabbit is an emblematic figure of African folklore, a direct descendant of the trickster who gets by on his wits. Where [political correctness] gets ridiculous is when [corporations trying to avoid a controversy] just presume that if something is stereotypical, then African Americans aren't going to like this. There is a diversity of images in the media now that reflect our diversity in real life. We can look at 'Song of the South' with a new awareness and appreciation."

"What I take away from the movie," Maltin said, "is the following: That Uncle Remus is a warm, good-hearted character who captures the imagination of a lonely little boy who happens to be white. The boy is absolutely colorblind, and the audience relates to him. There is an incredible moment when Uncle Remus takes the boy's hand in his, and there is an insert of the white and black hands clasped together. It's the emotional climax of the movie."

Disney is not alone in grappling with racially insensitive material in older films. Two years ago, CartoonNetwork found itself in a similar situation when it announced plans to broadcast every Bugs Bunny cartoon during its annual "June Bugs" marathon. But such controversial cartoons as "All This and Rabbit Stew" and "Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips" were ultimately deemed not ready for prime time.

On the "Little Rascals" VHS box set collection from Republic Pictures Home Video, Maltin appears at the beginning of each volume to introduce the shorts and place them in historical context.

Those in favor of "Song of the South's" home video release point out that other films with racial depictions from another era are readily available, including "Gone With the Wind" and D.W. Griffith's epic, "Birth of a Nation," with its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. Mail order outlets such as Movies Unlimited still stock "Charlie Chan" films and episodes of the "Amos & Andy" TV series.

"There are plenty of great films that are not available," Maltin observed, "but the reasons are much more mundane or whimsical. I hope it ['Song of the South'] has a chance to come out again and find a new audience. It would have to be done responsibly. I hope it comes to pass."

So does Warrick. "I wish Walt were alive," she said. "I think I could talk him into releasing it."

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