REQUEST: SONG OF THE SOUTH

I realize this is a tough sell if only because it is not accessible to most of your audience. Probably also because both the hosts are White. But consider it for the following reasons. It has increasingly bothered me that this film doesn't have the esteemed place in the history of Black Americans in cinema that it deserves.

1) James Basketts (Uncle Remus) was the first Black male to win an Oscar and he did it for this role. And he is *awesome* at the role. Hattie McDaniels (the first Black person of any sex to win an Oscar) is good be she actually just reprising her Oscar winning role in Gone With the Wind.

2) Uncle Remus is the hero in this movie which is probably a film by a major studio.

3) James Basketts was the first Black actor ever cast by Disney in any role. Came to audition for the role of an animated butterfly or something and was chosen as Uncle Remus on the spot.

4. This movie can be scanned as an early Youth Film. Johnny (famous child actor Bobby Driscoll) has fallen under the superior mentorship of a Black man and the adults freak out. When Uncle Remus is forced to leave the plantation due to his influence on Johnny, Driscoll's reaction is that of "Joey" in SHANE when Alan Ladd leaves.

5. The animated portions (the most important part) are "Black" characters (since they come from Uncle Remus's mind). Br'er Rabbit is a Black man in fur. So are his nemises. So are his neighbors. I don't know if every animated animal was voiced by a Black actor but Br'er Rabbit was (Johnny Lee) and Br'er Bear (Nick Stewart). Basketts voice Bre'r Fox and at least one other character.

6. The stories of Uncle Remus on which the movie was based were the earliest widely published collections of authentic Black American folktales. Some of the stories (including the controversial "Tar Baby" story) have been tracked all the way back to Africa. Joel Chandler Harris claimed that *all* the stories were picked up during his time hanging out with the slaves and then sharecroppers in his youth. For some of the stories at the very least this has proven to be true.

So both the movie and the book on which it was based are vital touchstones Black People in America and in cinema.

Regarding the Knocks against the movie:
----------------------------------------------------

a) The movie soft-sells the cruelty of slavery in the South.
The movie takes place during Reconstruction. Remus is not a slave. As in the stories, he's a sharecropper. Now, this was a movie for children. It is really not a movie where anyone would have expected to see masked bands led by Nathan Bedford Forrest terrorizing Black communities. But Uncle Remus is positively treated unfairly by the White establishment. And that is the POV of the movie.

b) The Black dialect is degrading.
This was *arguably* true when the movie came out in 1946. It was not true within 25 years after. In 1946, even a genuine southern dialect in the mouth of Black actor was a signal to white audiences that the character was not to be taken seriously. And Uncle Remus (regardless of his positive qualities) was not the way educated Black people wanted to see Black people portrayed. They wanted to be portrayed like Sidney Poitier (although that was an effected accent and he was Bahaman). By the 70s, Black Americans began to see that attitude as self-hating. And maybe it was. Mantan Moreland's amazing comic characters are still looked down on simply because his movies came out on the wrong side of that temporal divide in the way educated, middle-class Black people wanted to be portrayed in front of White people. If Baskett's accent and the accents of Br'er Rabbit's neighbors is denigrating to Black people today, then so is Redd Fox's, Richard Pryor's, Jimmy Walker, Eddie Murphy's, Ice Cube's, and Tyler Perry's. When I was a child, watching What's Happenin' on TV, my father remarked that when he was a teenager, that show would have been viewed as racist. That comment strikes me as much more profound with the more life/cinema experience.

What DID probably make the Black southern accents grating is that the White actors do NOT speak with Southern accents (as they do in Gone With the Wind). This heightens the sense that the Black characters are being portrayed condescendingly. But with a modern view, this choice makes the White characters look artificial. It doesn't denigrate the Black characters because we're used to hearing Black people talk the way many actually do.

c) The Tar Baby scene.
First, this is the way the story was told in the book, and was probably the way Harris heard it from the source. And for a story told by Black People for Black People, I doubt it was originally seen as denigrating that the fake man in the story was made of Black materials. "Naturally, the Tar Baby was dark colored. People are dark colored. What other color would it be?"

Secondly, the doll was made of tar. There are limits to the way that artifact could be drawn. It looks cartoonish because it is in a cartoon. German people don't look like the Dwarfs in Snow White (bulbous noses, huge round eyes). Yes, White people did denigrate Black people by drawing them cartoonishly so there are similarities. If Disney were doing this movie today, they probably wouldn't use this story at all because it is so hard to do it in a way that avoids criticism. But if Tyler Perry or Kevin Hart had chosen to make an animated "Urban" film of these stories, they might well have used this story and done it much the same way.

d) The movie does not address the real difficulties that Black people were fighting for in the 40s.
A bit at the end it does, but generally, no. But this is like saying that Jackie Robinson was allowing Black people to be denigrated because he chose to never respond the jeers and provocations from racist Whites in the stands. He was the first. His choices cannot be compared to the atheletes that follow the dangerous path he blazed.
SOTS was also a first. Disney was selling a movie about Black heritage with a Black hero to White people at a time of intense racial paranoia and controversy. And they did it successfully. That's pretty cool.

e) Disney did not have clean hands regarding denigrating racial stereotypes of Black people in their movies.

True. There is a scene in Fantasia that has happily been cut from any digital or VHS version of the movie you will ever see. Also, one of the crows in DUMBO (which are also animal depictions of "Black characters") is named Jim Crow. That's pretty insulting.
But don't criticize THOSE movies by using THIS movie as a proxy.

Please sign up to join in on the conversation!

Register