Song of the South
directed by Harve Foster, Wilfred Jackson
(Walt Disney, 1946)

James Baskett was only 42 years old when he brought the wise old sharecropper Uncle Remus to life. He died only two years later, but he lived to become the first African American to receive an Academy Award for that performance.

It's a shame that, even in the more enlightened 21st century, Walt Disney still refuses to release this darling film for a modern audience to enjoy. Although denounced in 1946 by the NAACP for its racial stereotypes, Song of the South deserves another look. Far from degrading blacks, it celebrates their oral tradition. And Remus himself -- not a slave, as some argue, but a free man during the Reconstruction period that followed the Civil War -- is a wise, kind and good-hearted man whose message to his employer's grandson, young Johnny, still resonates through his stories.

Like many Disney films from that era, the songs remain memorable and fun. The blend of live action and animation was cutting edge for its time. And the fables Remus spins about Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear are every bit as fun as they were when I first saw them in 1972 -- sadly, one of the last times Disney allowed this hidden gem out of its box.

Besides the genial Baskett, the movie starred Bobby Driscoll as young Johnny, Luana Patten as Ginny, Glenn Leedy as Toby, Erik Rolf and Ruth Warrick as Johnny's separated parents, Lucile Watson as his grandmother and Hattie McDaniel as Aunt Tempy. The story is simple, the acting at times a little awkward, but it's magical nonetheless.

There is an innocence about this film that defies politics, and it's a shame that politics keeps it buried today. Many movies, from Gone With the Wind, The Godfather and White Chicks to countless American Westerns, portray certain cultures in a negative or stereotypical light, but that has never been a good reason to rewrite history or censor art. Heck, mothers (usually dead) and stepmothers (typically evil) have more cause to complain about their depiction in Disney films.

I hope Disney someday comes to its corporate sense and realizes that fact, and maybe Song of the South will help a new generation find its laughing place. Meantime, you can find the film in its entirety (although split into 10 segments) at various online locations. Track it down and enjoy it despite Disney's efforts to hide this heartwarming treasure away.

review by
Tom Knapp

5 September 2009

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