Why Disney won't re-release 'Song of the South'
Why Disney won't re-release 'Song of the South'
By EARL SWIFT, The Virginian-Pilot
© March 4, 2007
COME TUESDAY, Walt Disney Video will release a Platinum Edition DVD of the ever-popular "Peter Pan." Five weeks ago, the company retired three other classic cartoons, including "Bambi."
Disney's long used a cycle of absence and plenty to keep its films fresh to new viewers. In decades past, it re-released its films in theaters every few years; today, it rotates its videos like bakery stock.
All but one.
Alone among the great Disney features, "Song of the South" has never been released on videotape or DVD in the United States and hasn't been screened in a stateside theater since 1986.
Despite Academy Awards, groundbreaking technology, a black leading man and a script that often turns racial stereotypes on their head, the 1946 movie has been ****ed as an embarrassing throwback, a whitewash, the racist skeleton in Disney's film vault.
Its critics home in on the dialects that leave the lips of its black stars and cartoon characters - dialects that even the movie's fans allow are over the top - and its aw-shucks, all-smiles depiction of Reconstruction on a Georgia plantation.
Bootleg copies abound on the Internet, as do imports from Europe and Japan.
They'll have to do. Because no matter how unsatisfactual the situation might be to fans, there ain't no way, no how, that the movie will resurface any time soon.
More than a generation after its last screening, "Song of the South" is probably best remembered for its signature number, "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah," sung with folksy ease by actor James Baskett as cartoon butterflies and a bluebird orbit his head.
The song earned an Academy Award, as did Baskett, the first black male actor to receive an Oscar. His role: Uncle Remus, a former slave and genial storyteller whose fables about a trickster named Brer Rabbit and his two nemeses, Brer Fox and Brer Bear, form the heart of the plot.
The movie's blend of live action and animation was cutting-edge for its day, as were a host of subtle turns in the narrative: Uncle Remus served as a father figure to both blacks and whites at a time when Southern audiences remained segregated; a little black boy, Toby, was depicted as wiser than a little white boy, Johnny; black and white children played together as equals.
"What I would say in defense of 'Song of the South' is the same thing I would say about 'Showboat': If you study them in the context of the time in which they were made, they are socially progressive," said Douglas Brode, a Syracuse University film expert who has devoted several books to Disney fare.
"I believe that anything on film or television from the past, from more than 10 years ago, can be seen as racist today. Racist, insensitive, homophobic, whatever you're going to pick on. However much we've changed, the movie will be minus that."
In "Song of the South," it's not the message that has aged poorly, so much as the style of its delivery. Brer Rabbit announces in Old South patois that he's "done made up my mind" to leave home. Brer Fox's accent, supplied by Baskett, is retro enough to make an Imperial Wizard cringe. And between "Well, suhs" and "Sho' 'nuffs," Uncle Remus delivers such lines as: "Ol' Brer Fox was powerful curious 'bout the whereabouts of Brother Rabbit."
"The language sort of hits you as being inappropriate for public consumption," said Kathy Merlock Jackson, a Virginia Wesleyan College professor who has written two books on Walt Disney. "We're in a different time."
Some critics have detected a trove of less obvious problems, as well. Patricia A. Turner, a professor of African American and African studies at the University of California-Davis, has pointed out that Toby doesn't appear at Johnny's birthday party, for instance. "Toby is good enough to catch frogs with," she wrote in her 1994 book, "Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies," "but not good enough to have birthday cake with."
The story itself is innocuous. Little Johnny moves to his grandmother's Georgia plantation a few years after the Civil War and befriends Toby, Uncle Remus and a little white girl named Ginny Faver.
Uncle Remus shares his first story when he encounters Johnny trying to run away from the plantation. Live action segues to animation: Brer Rabbit announces he's leaving his burrow and his troubles behind and soon enough faces far bigger worries: He's snared in a trap set by Brer Fox. The rabbit avoids becoming supper only by tricking the dimwitted Brer Bear into taking his place.
Johnny decides not to run away after all. Instead, he feuds with Ginny's white-trash brothers. Uncle Remus delivers his second fable, in which Brer Fox creates a "Tar Baby" and, as intended, Brer Rabbit becomes stuck to it. This time, last-second reverse psychology saves the day: Brer Rabbit begs the fox to kill him any way he pleases, except by throwing him into a briar patch bristling with ugly thorns. The fox tosses him in, and the rabbit, raised in the briars, escapes again.
Johnny pulls a similar trick on the Faver brothers, who consequently get a whipping from their mother. Johnny's own mom, suspicious of Uncle Remus' influence, orders the old man to keep his distance. Dejected, Remus leaves the plantation, and when Johnny follows, he's run down by a bull. All ends well - he revives when Uncle Remus takes his hand, and the children, Remus and Brer Rabbit sing "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" as they skip off through the woods.
But not before Uncle Remus shares a yarn in which Brer Rabbit convulses in laughter as the fox roasts him on a spit, then tells the mystified predator he can't help himself - he's been visiting his "laughing place."
Brer Bear interrupts the roasting to demand that the rabbit take them there. He leads them instead to a hornet's nest, and takes off when they're swarmed.
"I wish I had a laughing place!" Johnny tells Uncle Remus.
"What makes you think you ain't?" Uncle Remus replies.
Baskett's Uncle Remus was a faithful adaptation of a character from a 19th century Atlanta newspaper column. Joel Chandler Harris, its creator, had spent his teen years on a Georgia plantation, where he'd heard slave stories apparently rooted in African folklore and preserved through repeated retelling.
Many stories pitted a rabbit - the "Brer" was short for "Brother," and was supposed to be pronounced "Bruh" - against stronger foes; the fables not only championed brains over brawn but were allegories of survival under all-powerful masters.
Harris moved Remus into books in 1880. In each, the author quoted his narrator in an exaggerated dialect. In each, the kindly old man spins his yarns to a wide-eyed little boy; in the later books, the boy brings his own son to listen at the good uncle's feet.
They were a smash and launched Harris to literary stardom. Among the readers captivated by the seemingly simple tales was a western Missouri youngster named Walter E. Disney.
Years later, when he'd established his film studio, Disney nursed an ambition to bring Uncle Remus to the screen. He couldn't pull it off, however, until his company was able to seamlessly blend live and cartoon action.
The technology didn't come cheap: Disney reportedly spent more than $2 million on "Song of the South," a mint at the time. And it was controversial from the start: Ebony magazine called for blacks to boycott the movie. Time magazine blasted it as backward. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People denounced its happy depiction of the master-slave relationship - a complaint that persists today, though the story is actually set after the Civil War.
Even so, the picture easily covered its expenses during its initial run, and many times over in the years that followed - and "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" was inescapable in late 1946 and early '47.
"It was the first film I remember seeing as a kid," said Dave Smith, who heads the studio's archives, "so it's always been a favorite of mine."
Disney re-released it in 1956, as a studio classic in 1972 (when a radio spot called it "mighty satisfactual entertainment ") and again in 1980. Its big-screen run six years later marked the movie's 40th anniversary. Disney made a fuss about it.
Then the company locked it away.
About the only traces of the film that endure on American soil are at the Disney theme parks, where the Splash Mountain log flumes are populated by characters from the briar patch.
So it may well stay. At Disney's 2006 annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., a shareholder asked company President and CEO Robert A. Iger why the studio hadn't re-released the movie. Iger replied that he'd seen it "fairly recently" and had concluded that its "depictions... would be bothersome to a lot of people."
"Even considering the context [in which] it was made, I had some concerns about it," he said. No re-release was in the works.
That's of little surprise to the company's observers. "I can't imagine what would have to happen for that to be released," Virginia Wesleyan's Jackson said. "Disney just doesn't want to deal with it. They have lots of other things to release."
Brode said he can appreciate the company's worries about the film's reputed racism - "which is not to say I believe it is racist, because I don't."
It could be, he said, that as foreign copies of the movie trickle into the United States, people will come to see this "very great film" for its intentions, rather than its flaws.
But if that happens, it's years away. For now, Brode said, he's frustrated by what he considers far more troubling images of blacks in film.
"I can't believe 'Gone With the Wind' is shown on television today," he said. "I can't watch it.
"That people would think 'Song of the South' is racist and would have no problem with 'Gone With the Wind' is just bizarre."
• Reach Earl Swift at (757) 446-2352 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Source URL: http://content.hamptonroads.com/stor...457&ran=240789
Another vote for Song of the South
I decided to go ahead and buy a copy on Amazon. I watched the movie with my DS (6). We both loved it. It is now one of my favorite Disney movies.
I used the film as an opportunity to talk to my son about racism and slavery.
So is Disney releasing the film outside of the U.S. or are all the copies bootleg overseas?