News Archives: In Defense of Disney's Uncle Remus by Merlin Jones

Originally published on SaveDisney.com, January 21, 2005; Archived July 17, 2005.
Reprinted with permission.

On January 15, 2005, actress Ruth Warrick, star of Walt Disney's "Song of the South," died at age 88. Though this 1946 classic is by far her most remembered film after "Citizen Kane," the title was not even mentioned in a lengthy obituary in The New York Times.

This is a film that has been suppressed in North America by its copyright holders for nearly twenty years.

Warrick, who called Walt Disney a personal friend, was very proud of her work in "Song of the South" and had spoken out repeatedly on behalf of the film's re-release. In 2003, she told the Los Angeles Times, "I'm sad," it has not been released, "because it leaves out a whole chapter in the history of Walt Disney. The film is probably one of his crowning points."

In tribute to Ms. Warrick, and Mr. Disney, let's take an open-minded look at "Song of the South":

In Defense of Disney's Uncle Remus...
By Merlin Jones

Walt Disney's Song of the South is one of my favorite films, and has been since I first watched it in a 1972 reissue.

Though the film has been labelled "insensitive" or worse... "racist"... I see it as quite the opposite: a reaffirming story of the bond between two friends that refuse to be separated by race, class, age -- a friendship that is forged and held against all odds. A tale of unity.


First there was the book: The author of the Uncle Remus Stories, Joel Chandler Harris, was a journalist who developed an interest in the African-American storytelling traditions and dialect as handed-down through generations of plantation workers. Adapting the oral fables of Br'er Rabbit to prose, Harris invented Uncle Remus as the teller of the tales and published a volume that, by the early 1900's, had become a standard of American children's literature.

These stories were dear to Walt Disney. He said at the time of the film's production, "The first books I ever read were the Uncle Remus stories. Ever since then, these stories have been my special favorites. I've just been waiting until I could develop the proper medium to bring them to the screen."

Here is the framing story Walt devised for his screen adaptation:

"Song of the South" is set in Georgia, post-Civil War reconstruction era. As the story opens, young Johnny (Bobby Driscoll) joins his mother, Miss Sally (Ruth Warrick), on an extended visit to his Grandmother's plantation (Johnny's parents are undergoing a trial marriage separation). While there, the lonely boy tries to run away to join his journalist father (Erik Rolf) in Atlanta, but is waylaid and befriended by the wise old storyteller and former slave, Uncle Remus (James Baskett). With his colorful tales of Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear, Remus ignites a passion in Johnny's imagination -- creating a "Laughing Place" that helps him cope with the stresses of home life. Johnny's bond with Uncle Remus soon threatens Miss Sally's authority, as she feels the fables have inspired her son to rebel against her rules and wishes. After a series of conflicts arise, in which Johnny imitates the wits of Br'er Rabbit, Uncle Remus is forbidden to tell Johnny any more stories. Feeling useless without his storytelling, Remus sadly decides to leave the only home he has ever known. When the boy cuts across a bullpen to stop his best friend from leaving the plantation, he is gravely injured. Only when Uncle Remus comes back home, Johnny's father in tow, can the storyteller's gift revive the child -- as a reunited family finds their own Laughing Place, together.


So what is so threatening about Walt Disney's Song of the South that has kept the film locked in a vault since its last successful theatrical reissue in 1986?

The film is still popular. Despite being the most-requested feature in the Disney library (and the second most-requested DVD on Amazon.com)... despite a projected North American home video revenue value in the hundreds of millions of dollars (with previous success on video abroad)... despite the fact that the movie inspired one of the most perpetually popular rides (Splash Mountain) in Disney's theme-park empire... despite the undying popularity of its score, including the Oscar-winning song, Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah... Disney's current executives have stubbornly refused to allow the film to be sold or screened domestically, even in recent times of severe financial drought (...and that goes for the soundtrack album too...).

Could this be a terminal case of "political in-correctness?"

Is this, then, a film filled with offensive, over-the-top racial stereotypes of Hollywood's Stepinfetchit era? Not really -- it features a sensitive Oscar-winning performance by James Baskett as Uncle Remus, with ample support from fellow Oscar-winner, Hattie McDaniel. Does the film hide racist messaging to seduce children? No -- The animated Br'er Rabbit stories are adapted from vital African-American oral storytelling traditions. Does the film deliberately incite hatred or violence? No -- It features a gentle message about the value of laughter and imagination. Does the movie advocate segregation or racial division? No. -- Its protagonists openly desire togetherness.

As film historian Leonard Maltin noted to the Los Angeles Times in 2003, "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."

So what is the fuss?

Oddly, through the years, Song of the South has been criticized most for its aesthetic "beauty." In this view, the sentimentality and nostalgia permeating the film's evocative moonlight and magnolia, its tone and Technicolor (lovingly photographed by Citizen Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland -- with animated segments vividly color-styled by Disney artist Mary Blair) taint the film as soft-pedaling the injustices of the post-war era through a rose-colored lens. The whole effort has been deemed by its critics a bit too dreamlike, palatable and perfect, with a patronizing head buried in longing for a distant, non-conflicted era that never really existed. In other words, to some, Song of the South is a pretty white lie of passive-aggressive propaganda.

On the film's original release in 1946, the NAACP issued the following telegram to the press:

"The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People recognizes in "Song of the South" remarkable artistic merit in the music and in the combination of living actors and the cartoon technique. It regrets, however, that in an effort neither to offend audiences in the north or south, the production helps to perpetuate a dangerously glorified picture of slavery. Making use of the beautiful Uncle Remus folklore, "Song of the South" unfortunately gives the impression of an idyllic master-slave relationship which is a distortion of the facts."

Said folklorist Patricia A. Turner: "Disney's 20th century re-creation of Harris's frame story is much more heinous than the original. The days on the plantation located in "The United States of Georgia" begin and end with unsupervised blacks singing songs about their wonderful home as they march to and from the fields." She continues, "In the world that Disney made, the Blacks sublimate their own lives in order to be better servants to the white family. If Disney had truly understood the message of the tales he animated so delightfully, he would have realized the extent of distortion of the frame story."

Though the idyllic tone of the film is undeniable, there one key problem with this line of criticism: The story actually doesn't involve slavery at all -- it takes place after the civil War, during reconstruction (Remus is clearly shown as free to leave the plantation if he so desires - which he does -- a key plot point in the film. The field workers' lyrics "Let the rain pour down, let the cold wind blow, gonna stay right here in the home I know" also place the setting postwar, where they have the power to make that decision).

Unfortunately, the Studio ignored a note from the Production Code Administration when it reviewed the script in 1944: "Be certain the frontispiece of the book mentioned establishes the date in the 1870's." ("The book" being the original concept to use a copy of Tales of Uncle Remus for the title sequence). This oversight can be addressed, should the film be reissued, with a simple subtitle over the opening scene denoting the setting. This would help clear-up any confusion that the story is set before slavery was abolished.

Of course, even the post-war period was no Disneyland for former slaves. There is no doubt that Song of the South is a product of its times, and reflects some of Hollywood's tired audio-visual codes and symbols of the pre-Civil Rights era (albeit in a manner far less overt than even the readily available Gone With the Wind). But this film is no Amos 'N' Andy -- no minstrel show

Though Ebony called Uncle Remus "an Uncle Tom - Aunt Jemima caricature," this label demeans James Baskett's sensitive onscreen performance. Intimate, nuanced and spellbinding in his storytelling, Baskett (who also performed the voice of Br'er Fox) was presented an honorary Academy Award "for his able and heartwarming characterization of Uncle Remus, friend and storyteller to the world."

Karl F. Cohen, author of Forbidden Animation, notes of co-screenwriter Maurice Rapf, "He made it clear that Br'er Rabbit and the other characters in the stories who represented blacks were outsmarting the "white" characters with their brains rather than brawn."

In the world of the film, the black characters, while often deferent, are undeniably the wisest, kindest and most sympathetic humans in the story. The "villains" of Song of the South are white, from Johnny's self-absorbed Mother to the almost-feral white farmhand bullies - the Faver Boys (who represent Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear in the live-action story).

At center stage in Song of the South is Walt's thematic pre-occupation with cold adults that have forgotten their inner-child (a theme which is repeated throughout his major works, including Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, The Three Lives of Thomasina and Pollyanna), and the power of innocence and imagination (here represented by Uncle Remus) to heal the family unit.

But the usual conflict between child and parent takes on a far more symbolic role in this setting:

Bobby Driscoll's character, Johnny, the lonely protagonist to which we relate in the story, has chosen his three best friends at Grandma's postwar Georgian plantation: Uncle Remus, an aging former slave, a gifted storyteller and wizened confidante... Toby, a black worker his own age... and Ginny, poor white-trash daughter of plantation field-hands (not to mention the mongrel puppy, Teenchy, with no pedigree to his name).

None of these social "undesirables" are exactly what Johnny's Mother, Miss Sally, a cool and confused woman separated from her journalist husband, would select for her son's companions. Miss Sally's increasingly determined attempts to sidetrack Johnny with other rich white children, Little Lord Fauntleroy outfits and the trappings of privilege, fall on deaf ears. Johnny rejects Sally's pretensions to stand fast with his friends. His eyes do not see color, status, breeding or wealth... only the bright and wonderful souls and stories to which he is bonded.

What the truly colorblind Johnny shares with his friends is the gift of laughter and imagination, primal attractions that transcend societal limitations and proprieties. He is an instinctive "progressive," fighting against his Mother's unnecessary bias, fighting for tolerance, inclusion and equal standing for his pals. Johnny shares the "dream" that there is no imaginary line separating him from Uncle Remus -- and we root for him to succeed.

The one who has a problem here is Miss Sally, the antagonist, the character to whom we do not relate in any way, the character who is even reproached by her own Mother for trying to separate Johnny from Uncle Remus and his tales. She needs to get a clue about what is really important -- before her world crumbles as surely as The Old South. Despite her lavender and lace and detached demeanor, Sally is more destructive than the bull that mows Johnny over in the third act as he attempts to keep Uncle Remus from leaving the plantation. Perhaps that stubborn, threatening bull is her avatar.

Miss Sally is a mess. Her husband writes provocative (read: Yankee?) journalism, and is dedicated to his work to the exclusion of family. Mired in the trappings of class status and post-war politics, and disappointed by the disintegrating family dream, Sally has lost a vital connection to her youth. She can't see the value in Br'er Rabbit. She has stopped laughing.

During a trial separation, Sally transfers her anger onto her son, Johnny. His access to puppies, friends -- and especially the tales of Uncle Remus -- seem incidental to Sally's personal problems. Everyone in her world must follow the rules she understands -- especially her own flesh and blood. Sally is clinging to the past, becoming more the control freak the more Johnny resists her world of illusion. Out of frustration, she creates additional anxiety for her son by restraining his creative expression, choosing his friends, clothes and pets, projecting her own prejudices upon him... forbidding the telling of life-giving tales.

In his innocence, Johnny has no racial or elitist hang-ups - he only knows that Uncle Remus has opened a Technicolor pathway to imagination with his storytelling - a connection to a vivid world of relevant feelings and ideas outside of Miss Sally's preconceived notions. When Uncle Remus is forbidden to sidetrack Johnny with anymore of his stories, tragedy strikes as the boy tries to hang on to Uncle Remus and his dreams. It is only when the parents are confronted by the potential loss of their son do they realize what is truly important - finding their Laughing Place, the place they knew as children, the place they can share with Johnny as a family, together -- and together with those of other races and class distinctions. They must remember Br'er Rabbit and Uncle Remus.

Undeniably at the core of this simple story is the bonding and tragic separation of two simpatico souls of different races, ages and classes: Johnny and Uncle Remus. Advocacy and understanding is the lesson Miss Sally must learn when she tries to come between them -- to tragic results. In thematic subtext, segregation is the enemy, unity the goal.

Revisionist apologetics for a dated and decidedly politically "incorrect" film? I don't think so. No matter the film's flaws, there is much of value to be found. As Uncle Remus says of his tales, "if they don't do no good, how come they last so long?"

The Br'er Rabbit animated segments in particular contain some of most polished examples of personality animation at the crest of Disney's golden era, highlighted by the work of Walt's Nine Old Men. The lively cartoon story adaptation clearly benefited from the involvement of Walt himself, a modern-day Uncle Remus.

"It was a film he really wanted to do," Diane Disney Miller told the Los Angeles Times of her father, "My dad quoted so much from Uncle Remus' logic and philosophy."

I can't tell you how many times I have quoted the film - and Uncle Remus' homilies - in my own life. "You can't run away from your troubles, there ain't no place that far."... "Don't go sticking your foot somewhere it's got no business being in the first place."... "Time to use our heads instead of our foots."

There is gold in these simple morality lessons -- and in the celebration of the African-American folklore from which they came. Joel Chandler Harris collected the Br'er Rabbit stories after the Civil War, but he had first heard them from slaves as a child.

Brian Pendreigh in The Herald wrote of the original oral tales, "The characters represented the two races, with Br'er Rabbit a symbol of black ingenuity in the face of white thuggery and aggression."

The late Jackie Torrence was a storyteller focused on cultural lore. According to the Los Angeles Times, she disagreed with critics who consider the Uncle Remus folk tales as demeaning to African-Americans.

"As a teaching tool, the tales implied great morals when they told of the sly ways the slaves had outsmarted the master." Torrence, the granddaughter of slaves, told the publication Notable Black American Women, "They were warning devices and were used as signals to those who were hiding -- needing information about people who could and would help. Why do we resent them now?... Whatever the reason, we are making a grave mistake. These stories are important to the black as well as to the white heritage of America."


Despite the intellectual criticism Song of the South has received since its premiere, the film has undeniably connected with audiences through the generations. It always performed well at the box-office and rarely sparked protest from the general public (even in recent years when available on video in Europe and Asia). After a successful reissue in the 1956, the film was "permanently retired" in the civil rights era, only to re-emerge in 1972 as the most successful Disney reissue up to that time. It was reissued in 1980 and again in 1986 (for its 40th anniversary), also with little apparent controversy.

When taking into account ticket price inflation for re-releases, Song of the South's adjusted box-office gross weighs in at $288.6 million (per boxofficereport.com), making it the highest-grossing film - from any studio - that has never been released to home video in North America.

Yet some in Burbank's Team Disney building want to continue holding Song of the South from its many fans.

In 2004, Roy E. Disney commented on the film's lack of availability to SongoftheSouth.net, "I am sorry to tell you this is another reason to do our best to move Eisner out. He has been - for quite a few years now - totally against (I think AFRAID is a better word) re-releasing Song of the South, which happens to be one of my favorite of the old Disney films. A number of us have tried, for some time, to change his mind, to no avail."

In the meantime, left with little recourse, impatient fans search out expensive imports or bootleg copies at conventions and on the net. Must they break the law in order to view a "banned" intellectual work for themselves?

Film critic Roger Ebert seems to envision a future comprised of privileged elites who have special access to controversial films. In 2000, he wrote in reference to Song of the South, "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." In 2004 he added, "Disney has made a corporate decision to hold Song of the South from release because of its stereotyping of some of the African-American characters, and I have expressed sympathy with that position because the film is directed primarily toward children who see films literally. I would not want to be an African-American child at a screening of the film, but I would support its screening for mature audiences."

A slippery slope, Roger. And who makes that decision for everyone, your thumb?

Should we keep children from knowing their own cultural history, their own chance to learn -- to remember -- to track society's progress or mistakes -- to keep injustice from happening again? As a society, we can't progress honestly if we hide or forget or re-imagine our collective past to make it more easily digestible (ironically, one of the accusations made against the film). And who is to ultimately decide what the "common man" can or cannot see? Forced utopianism through suppression of intellectual works is potentially far more destructive - and dangerous - than open and constructive conversation. Keeping this film locked in a vault only suppresses potent fodder for debate -- a positive early learning tool for cross-cultural understanding.

Though this brand of suppression is not actual government censorship -- it had just as well be. With soulless conglomerates absorbing copyrights and legally extending expiration dates in perpetuity, they become defacto censors of intellectual materials when suppressing "dated" properties from commercial exploitation to protect a corporate image.

US copyright laws exist only to protect those commercial rights -- If the copyright holder has truly abandoned the intent to exploit the property, rights should fall back into the public domain where we can all share the material freely. "Use it or lose it" should become our new copyright mantra.

Like it or not, for good or ill, Song of the South is art. And art needs to be accessible to the people, no matter its rough (or well-polished) edges. Even if one holds to the negative view of critics, then all the better the film should be widely seen, so we can talk it out together -- not hide it. Otherwise our civil liberties -- our collective freedoms of expression -- are seriously threatened.

But there may be a thaw on the horizon. Disney Studio chairman Dick Cook told a convention of Disney enthusiasts last year that the Company is looking at the (long-rumored) possibility of filming a historical-context-setting prelude for a potential DVD release of Song of the South, as has been the case with some of the Walt Disney Treasures releases such as On the Front Lines, a collection of Disney's WWII propaganda films.

Treasures host Leonard Maltin told The Star Tribune, "I very much hope that the folks at Disney will release Song of the South sometime soon, and use this same approach -- to be responsible in explaining the times it depicts and the attitudes of the period in which it was made."

Clarence Page, an African-American columnist for the Chicago Tribune, said in 2003, "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 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."

Indeed, a lengthy, uncut animated sequence from Song of the South, as featured in the TV special One Hour in Wonderland, showed up on the 2-disc Alice Wonderland DVD set in 2004. Could this have been a wee test for future release?

If so, I hope the film will be further restored before release (the original elements were preserved in recent years by loving hands). Unfortunately, the three-strip live-action segments have an exaggerated Technicolor "breathe/flicker." Fixing this up is totally possible with current technology (there is a recent program that matches the three strips together frame by frame, compensating for any changes, shrinking, contrast, decomposition, etc.) -- they just need the budget to do it.

(And -- we could use a remastered soundtrack CD while you're at it...).

No matter what is decided, the wise old storyteller will still be needed to open youthful hearts.

As a somewhat sheltered child sitting in an old Fox Theatre in rural California, I felt a kinship to Uncle Remus. He showed me other worlds, taught me to laugh, kept me from trying to run away. Uncle Remus was on-par with Mary Poppins and Peter Pan to me -- a magic maker, a healer, an avatar of Walt Disney -- with his wonderful animal fables and a warm twinkle in the eye, he let me know there was no separation of race, class or politics. Life was about the color of our dreams, not our skin. I wanted to be with him -- to be like him. Just like Johnny.

To forbid the telling of this tale -- to lose the laugher of Br'er Rabbit -- is to make Miss Sally the winner instead of Uncle Remus. Now that would be intolerable.

(The above commentary is strictly the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect that of SaveDisney.com, Roy or Stan).

For more articles on Walt Disney's Song of the South, and how you can help encourage the film's release, visit SongoftheSouth.net.

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