News Archives: Alabama Mobile Register Article

Published January 6, 2002
Archived May 3, 2003

'Song of the South'

by Mike Brantley

01/06/02

They say you don't mess with the Mouse.

The Walt Disney Company and its lawyers, I mean. I refer to them collectively as the Mouse, because they are the company the Mickey (and Walt) built.

These folks view in a very unflattering light anyone who violates the Disney copyrights. So, even if you begged and pleaded with me and offered to pay me a lot of money, I would not provide you with a video dub of my tattered and tired copy of the lost Disney classic "Song of the South."

I say it's lost not because the original negative and all the film prints are missing, because I'm sure these priceless elements are safely stored away in a vault somewhere. But Disney the company has all but disowned the film because of perceived racial stereotypes in its characters, particularly Uncle Remus (the late James Baskett, who died only two years after "Song's" 1946 release), and it has not been generally available in this country for a number of years.

The film has never been released on video in the United States, and its last theatrical run was in 1986.

For all intents and purposes, it's lost to most of us. We cannot rent it or buy it on home video, unless we're willing to pay too much for a used and out-of-print import on eBay. We can't see it on television, and we sure can't watch it in a theater.

If you like the movie — or perhaps you've never seen it but want the opportunity — you should know there is a campaign afoot to get Disney to release it domestically on video. More about that in a bit.

For those who don't know — and that's getting to be a lot of people, given the non-availability of this title — "Song of the South" is the 55-year-old Disney flick that beautifully combines animation and live action to tell some of the classic "Uncle Remus" stories written by Joel Chandler Harris.

These tales were first consumed by the public when they were published as newspaper columns in The Atlanta Constitution for a quarter-century beginning in 1879. They were compiled by Harris, who grew up in Georgia during the Civil War and spent a lifetime writing down stories told to him by former slaves.

Many years later, when they were firmly entrenched in American folklore, these stories of Brer Rabbit and other fanciful characters became the basis for "Song of the South."

In the film, a little white boy who is upset because his parents don't get along runs away from home and soon winds up in the care of Uncle Remus, a good-natured former slave who entertains the boy (and teaches him a few lessons) with his enthralling fables featuring woodland characters. Everyone has heard the one about the Tar Baby, right?

Maybe you have. Soon enough, as Americans who actually have seen this film get older, "Song of the South" may become erased from the pop-culture consciousness.

That's OK with some people, apparently.

No less an authoriy than movie critic Roger Ebert has stated that "Song of the South" should be withheld from general audiences.

"I am against censorship and believe that no films or books should be burned or banned, but film school study is one thing and a general release is another," Ebert wrote in his Movie Answer Man column for the Chicago Sun-Times (www.suntimes.coindeebert.html). "Any new Disney film immediately becomes part of the consciousness of almost every child in America, and I would not want to be a black child going to school in the weeks after 'Song of the South' was first seen by my classmates."

Others are quick to defend the film, as well as the source stories by Harris.

"It is my belief that this man (Harris) was compassionate towards the slaves he grew up listening to," writes "Song of the South" aficionado Christian Willis on his Web site (www.songofthesouth.net). "And, after the Civil War had passed, cared about them as free Americans as well. I do not believe that a man who spent literally his entire life immersed in the language of the African-Americans could have any malicious intent towards them."

Willis' belief is that the tales Walt Disney would later base his movie upon were created with the honorable intent of preserving and publicizing the 19th-century stories of African Americans.

That's why Willis is among those clamoring for a U.S. video release of "Song of the South."

Count Mobilian Tommy Praytor in, too. He's a major animation fan and proprietor of Praytor Animation, a Mobile-based company that buys and sells animation art.

"Will we look back 50 years from now and refuse to print some of the political cartoons we've published in the last four months because they are racist?" Praytor asked me when I told him I would write about the absence of "Song of the South." "Cartoons only express the mood of the country, and they should be played if for no other reason to show how far we have come in racial understanding."

About this movie, he said, "This is truly a classic story with many themes that prove true for today's children as they did for you and I when we were kids. Also the smartest guy in the movie is Uncle Remus. How can that be racist?"

At the time of its release, "Song of the South" gamered serious objections from groups such as the NAACP and the National Urban League, although these days the NAACP staunchly insists that it has not threatened boycotts, protest or any other actions against Disney if the company decides to release the film now.

Nevertheless, representatives of the organization did take part in protests against a Disneyland attraction with a "Song of the South" theme a few years ago. So it's easy to understand how Disney might fear political-correctness repercussions from those who inevitably would be offended by a modern release.

Thing is, Disney will offend people no matter what it does — so my argument is the company might as well do the right thing, which is to release the movie.

Last weekend, I learned about a small but growing Internet campaign among cinebuffs to get Disney to put the movie out on DVD — with all necessary disclaimers if the company feels the film does not reflect its ideals today.

When fans of the flick found out about a group of Disney Web addressees (see On the Net box) that gives consumers opportunities to vote for "Song of the South" in various categories, they jumped at the chance to send a message by voting for the absent-but-not-forgotten film. One Disney Web page gives Internet surfers a chance to vote for "Song" as a movie they want to see on video.

A unofficial fan-made Web site at www.uncleremuspages.com is host to an online petition seeking a lifting of Disney's self-imposed domestic ban on "Song of the South." So far, there are more than 5,000 signatures.

Enthusiasts who frequent the online Home Theater Forum (www.hometheaterforum.com) have debated the merits of "Song of the South" off and on over the years. In the past week, they have suggested that film critic and Disney expert Leonard Maltin be recruited to introduce the film to modern audiences and put it into historic perspective.

Sounds like a fine idea to me. Maltin already did the same chore for the recent DVD releases of the Davy Crockett adventures and some of the early Silly Symphonies animated shorts — which at times fall short of today's standards of political correctness.

I'm not entirely sure this extra layer of care is necessary, to be honest, but it would placate many of those who think the film is racist.

Can't say I'm among them, however. Even if I think about it real hard and try my best, I can't place "Song of the South" in the same camp as, say, D.W. Griffith's 1915 silent opus, "Birth of a Nation." The latter is a cinematic landmark and helped establish techniques still used by filmmakers today, but it is racist to its core.

Still, even though Griffith's film is an egregious exercise in racism, it is commonly available.

I can understand how another classic film, 1939's "Gone With the Wind," can rankle African Americans who object to the way that movie glorifies the antebellum South. By looking at that film, which Mobile Register readers named as their all-time favorite in a survey we conducted a few years back, you could come away with the impression that slavery was good for master and slave alike — which it wasn't.

"Song of the South" is, to be frank, rather benign in this regard. If there's no problem with David O. Selznick's little movie about Scarlett, Rhett and the death of the Old South being in general release, then what's the problem with "Song of the South?"

Its critics will say the problem is that "Song" is intended to be an entertainment for all ages, and "Gone With the Wind" is for adults. The latter after all, was quite scandalous in its day for its use of the word "damn."

Parents should and will be the ultimate judges of this, but I don't think "Song" would send bad messages to today's impressionable youth. I first saw this flick when I was a youngster, probably during one of its theatrical re-releases. From my childhood, I recall seeing the scenes in which children of differing races interacted. Certainly the character of Uncle Remus — no Uncle Tom, but a kind, grandfatherly country philosopher — made a lasting and good impression on me.

Those who have criticized "Song of the South" have claimed that it makes slavery appear pleasant or pretends that slavery didn't exist at all. Nevermind the film is set in the yeras following the abolition of slavery. I always have thought the movie offers a good, honest representation of the lives that some black Americans lived in a time that really existed.

That'll probably get me in trouble, but it's how I honestly feel about the film and its handling of its subject matter.

My copy of "Song of the South" is courtesy of a Japanese laserdisc import purchased many years ago, before those rare platters started fetching big moolah on eBay. It's novel because it features Japanese subtitles over the songs, including the famous "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah."

I'd like to have a pristine new copy on DVD.

Disney, please don't erase history. Releasing the film would be a bold, controversial move for your company, but it wouldn't be one without reward.

Keeping it hidden would be a crime against our culture.

Give me an uncensored new release of "Song of the South," and I will sing your praises. "My, oh my, what a wonderful day!"

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