Song of the South
Song of the South was Walt Disney's film adaptation of African American folk tales written down in the late nineteenth century by Joel Chandler Harris in his Uncle Remus tales. The film opened at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta on November 12, 1946, to a gala premiere similar to the one given Gone With the Wind seven years earlier. The film combined 70 percent live action and 30 percent animation in a format that was technically advanced for its time, but it received mixed reviews for artistic merit and criticism for its portrayal of black characters.
There was much discussion within the Disney studio about how the story and the African American characters should be presented. One of the scriptwriters, Clarence Muse—an African American—urged that black characters in the film be portrayed in a positive light. He was so disappointed in the response he received that he resigned before the script was complete. That the studio was not concerned with making a racially progressive statement was perhaps reflected in its choice of James Baskett, an actor in the Amos and Andy radio show, to play Uncle Remus, and in Walt Disney's comment to a colleague that he had hired a "swell little pickaninny" to play a black child in the film.
Song of the South concerns Johnny, a young white boy from Atlanta whose parents are separating. When he learns of the split while visiting his grandmother's plantation, he tries to run away and encounters an elderly black man, Uncle Remus, who tells him a Brer Rabbit story to persuade him to return home. A friendship develops, and Uncle Remus becomes for Johnny a substitute for his absent father and well-meaning but unaffectionate mother. When Johnny's mother forbids him to see Uncle Remus, the old man decides to move away, and the boy runs after him. Attacked by a bull, the boy lies in a coma, unresponsive to his parents, until Uncle Remus visits and his words awaken the boy. At the end of the film, Johnny's parents have reunited, and Uncle Remus and the children he has entranced are dancing down the road along with the animated characters from his tales. The animated sequences, reenactments of various Uncle Remus tales, are intended to instruct the boy in the importance of self-reliance, facing up to problems, and other values.
Many reviewers took issue with the film's portrayal of African Americans. The film does not make clear that the action is set shortly after the Civil War (1861-65), so that many viewers thought the black characters were slaves. Walter White, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, wrote that the film gives a "dangerously glorified picture of slavery." The National Negro Congress declared that the film "is an insult to the Negro people because it uses offensive dialect; it portrays the Negro as a low, inferior servant; it glorifies slavery." Ebony magazine criticized the film's "Uncle Tom/Aunt Jemima caricature." Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell called on New York theaters not to show it. Disney defended it as a "monument to the Negro race," pointing out that it was set after the Civil War and therefore could not be about slavery. Others found it entertaining, and a few praised its positive portrayals of blacks and whites. Southern reviewers tended to like the film more than did reviewers from other parts of the country.
Song of the South won an Academy Award for Best Song, for "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah," by Allie Wrubel (music) and Ray Gilbert (lyrics). Although he was not nominated in the acting category, Baskett was honored in 1947 with a special Oscar by the Academy for "his able and heartwarming characterization of Uncle Remus, friend and storyteller to the children of the world." He died four months later, at the age of forty-four. Other actors in the film included Hattie McDaniel (who played Mammy in Gone With the Wind), child star Bobby Driscoll, Ruth Warrick, and Erik Rolf.
Commercially, Song of the South was a success. Ticket sales were strong in its first run in 1946 and in the subsequent releases in 1956, 1972, 1980, and 1986. Its total gross income by the twenty-first century was approximately $60 million dollars worldwide. The controversy surrounding the film has discouraged other releases, however, and it is not available for commercial sale in the United States.
Matthew Bernstein, "Nostalgia, Ambivalence, Irony: Song of the South and Race Relations in 1946 Atlanta," Film History 8 (1996): 219-36.
Walter M. Brasch, Brer Rabbit, Uncle Remus, and the "Cornfield Journalist": The Tale of Joel Chandler Harris (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2000).
Leonard Maltin, The Disney Films, 4th ed. (New York: Disney, 2000).
Steven Watts, The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997).
Hugh Ruppersburg, University of Georgia
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