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Comment: It´s time for Disney to liberate `South´

Based on stories by Joel Chandler Harris first published in 1876, “South” was Disney´s first animated film to also use live actors. The 1946 release won a best song Academy Award for its signature tune, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” and actor James Baskett received an honorary Oscar for his work as Uncle Remus.

Yet “South” is never mentioned alongside such beloved animated Disney films as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Even on the official Disney Web site, the film is not listed on the “animated classics checklist” or under “other animated movies.”

The only way to access any information about it is through a specific name search.

That´s because “South” remains Disney´s most vexing and controversial film. At the height of the 1960s civil rights era, the NAACP condemned it for what the organization called “the impression it gives of an idyllic master-slave relationship.”

And in all likelihood, it´s the movie´s depiction of its black characters as singing former slaves still happily working for white folks on Southern plantations that has kept the film out of circulation for nearly 20 years.

Now, there´s a petition drive encouraging Disney to release the film on home video. Songofthesouth.net and Uncleremuspages.com have collected more than 60,000 names of people who claim they want a chance to rent or buy it.

Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook has said no Disney film has received more customer requests than that, and despite rumors to the contrary, there has never been an official ban of the film. Still, if its own Web pages are any indication, Disney has tried to keep the film consigned to its vaults.

And that´s a mistake.

I saw the film once, and I won´t hesitate to say I´m not a fan. I wasn´t deeply offended by the portrayals of African-American characters, but I do recall they made me uncomfortable in ways that, as a kid, I couldn´t quite define. It probably should be seen again now for the very reasons it first bothered me.

Some might argue that “South” may reinforces racial stereotypes. But in releasing the film, Disney could turn its sheepishness about the film into some kind of positive action. Any DVD would have to include among its extras supplemental material examining the film´s difficult history. Like many images in our culture, the film is weighed with a racial subtext, yet keeping the film out of view because of it is just as ignorant as are those who refuse to understand the fuss. The only proper thing for Disney to do is confront directly the film´s images, as well as its cultural resonance.

This isn´t kowtowing to political correctness but rather is an opportunity to deal with issues that most of us would rather not think about. It could be similar to what Disney did when it released “Walt Disney Treasures – On the Front Lines,” a collection of its animated shorts from the World War II era. There it dealt directly with the ethnic stereotypes of the Japanese that existed in those shorts.

Important discussions about still-relevant issues can be fueled by “South,” but only if more people can see it or see it again. Too often in this country, our way of dealing with shameful aspects of our history is to try to pretend they never existed. Keeping Uncle Remus out of circulation doesn´t so much protect the present as it sanitizes the past.