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Regarding ‘Song of the South’ – The Film That Disney Doesn’t Want You to See

Regarding 'Song of the South' – The Film That Disney Doesn’t Want You to See

Thinking about
Sony’s problems with “The Interview” and whether or not to release it (the latest word
is that they finally will in a limited release on Christmas day) has one thinking about other
major studio films that haven’t seen the light of day.
It’s not a big list, but there are a few.

Usually, it’s
because the film is so bad, and got such horrible reactions at audience test
previews that the studio, thought it was better off not releasing the film, and writing
off the costs, than to spend even more money marketing a film that no
one was going to see. 

And then there’s the special case of Disney’s 1946 film, “Song of the South.”

Actually, I
should admit upfront that the headline is somewhat misleading. For decades, it was
a film that Disney definitely wanted people to see (more about that
later), but for almost the last 30
years, the studio has tried as hard as it can to keep it out of sight, or even admit its existence.

The film is
based on the Uncle Remus collection of black folklore stories written by
Southern writer Joel Chandler Harris, during
the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Harris claimed he
was first inspired to write the stories when he worked on a plantation as a young
man, and according to him, was more comfortable hanging around the slave quarters
than he was among his fellow whites (needless to say, I’m sure the black slaves
on the plantation didn’t feel quite as comfortable, as Harris could
always go back to his comfy bed at the end of the day, while the slaves had to
stay there).

“South” was
the first Disney feature film to use live actors, and is to, still today, considered
a revolutionary step in filmmaking, in terms of combining live action with
animation.

The studio originally
offered the role of Uncle Remus to Rex Ingram (“The Green Pastures,” “Anna Lucasta,” “The Thief of Bagdad”) who turned it down, saying that he felt the role was too demeaning.
But they soon found their lead in the persona of New York based actor James
Baskett, who had originally auditioned for a voiceover job as one of the animated
characters in the film. Amazingly, although he looks much older in the film, Baskett
was only 41 years old when he made it, and in poor health (He died in 1948 only
two years after the film was released, due to heart failure).

The film was a modest hit when it was first released (Baskett himself was not allowed to attend
the film’s premiere in Atlanta, due to segregation laws in Georgia) and, believe
it or not, Baskett was actually awarded a special Oscar in 1948 “for his able and heart-warming
characterization of Uncle Remus, friend and story teller to the children of the
world in Walt Disney’s ‘Song of the South”. Though one should keep in mind
that, studios and publicists had much more power back then over the Academy
Awards than they do today, and Baskett’s special Oscar smells more of an arranged publicity
stunt between Disney and the Academy.

But what of
the film itself? As animated films go, it’s wonderful, but everything else, not
surprisingly, is a lot more troubling. Like other similar films of the period also dealing
with the antebellum South, the slaves in the film are all good-natured, subservient,
annoyingly cheerful, content and always willing to help a white person in need
with some valuable life lesson along the way.

In fact, they’re
 never called slaves, but they come off more like neighborly workers lending a helping hand for some kind, benevolent plantation owners. “12 Years A Slave,” “Song of the South” is not. And it’s sure no “Sankofa.”

Now you
would think that, with all the offensive and muddleheaded stereotypes in the
film, that Disney would be embarrassed by
it, and very quietly hide it as a bad mistake. Well, that’s where you’re
wrong. In fact, the film was a source of pride for the studio, and they re-released
it quite a few times after its 1946 release.

The studio re-released the film in theaters again in 1956, then again in 1972 for Disney’s 50th anniversary, then again the very
next year in 1973, and yet again in 1980 for the 100th anniversary of writer Joel Chandler Harris’ first
book, and even yet again in 1986 for the film’s own 40th
anniversary. There was even a Disney
Uncle Remus newspaper comic strip which started in 1946 and continued until
1972.

Finally, at
long last, someone at the studio came to their senses and realized that, maybe “Song of the South” wasn’t exactly the right sort of film to keep releasing in
this day and age, so the studio stopped all circulation of it.

Since 1986, the film has never been re-released again in theaters, or on any
video format in the U.S. Overseas, however, is an exception, where it was released
on video in parts of Europe, Asia and Latin
America during the 80’s and early 90’s. Since then, it hasn’t been released again
overseas either.

Naturally, there are film lovers and historians who have been arguing for years for the
film to be released on DVD here in the U.S., for its historical value, and there
have been rumors from time to time that Disney was considering it, but those
rumors always turn out to be false.

However, the
film had been available for a time on YouTube, until very recently; which means there’s
a chance someone might post it again. There are also bootleg DVD copies floating
around, if you know where to find them.

But Disney would rather wish the film away.

Should
it? You can argue that, since they made it, they should own up to itm and release
the film on DVD, with an insightful commentary track, and a broader discussion
on the representation of black images in film, with black film historians and
cultural critics.

Or maybe you feel we should just forget about it, and let it
die. 

But it’s a permanent record, and it will likely always exist.
And as I have said before, how can you know where you’re going, if
you don’t know where you’ve been? Meaning, we must always look at the past, no
matter how painful it may be, to help us figure out how we should deal with issues we will
face in the future.

What do you
say?

Here’s clip
from the film in which Baskett sing’s the hit song that won the Oscar for Best Original Song. And Happy Holidays! 

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