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9.24.2014

Disney Project - Song of the South

The Disney Project almost came to a screeching halt with the film, Song of the South. Disney never released the controversial film on DVD, so I had a hard time locating it to watch. I did eventually find a random website that streamed it, so I settled in with my computer one night and gave it a go.
Watching this film with my 21st century eyes, I can see how it comes off as insensitive to modern day viewers.  The film is based off the real Uncle Remus stories published in the late 1800's.  It's set on a plantation, but I was unclear if it was pre or post Civil War.  Sally and her son, Johnny, come to stay with Grandmother, who is the plantation owner, after Johnny's father has to go to Atlanta for an unknown reason that comes off as very ominous, but is never actually explained.

Johnny's feeling abandoned, and with no one to turn to finds friendship with a plantation worker named Uncle Remus. Uncle Remus is a natural storyteller and whatever situation Johnny or his friends seem to be in, he has an appropriate "Br'er Rabbit" story that teaches them valuable lessons. (The "Br'er Rabbit" stories are all animated). Due to a misunderstanding, Sally comes to feel that Uncle Remus is a bad influence on Johnny and forbids him from seeing Johnny. Johnny continually visits Uncle Remus despite his mother's protests, so Uncle Remus decides to leave the plantation.

Johnny is seriously hurt while attempting to stop Uncle Remus from leaving the plantation. While unconscious he continually mutters, "Uncle Remus." Grandmother brings Uncle Remus to the boys' side. He wakes up, oh and father returns too, so everyone is thrilled. Sally realizes how important Uncle Remus is to the children, and everyone lives happily ever after.

I think it is important to remember that this film was made in 1946 - a time when race relations were very different than how they are today. I think it is commendable that essentially Disney's first live action film (or at least the first that was more live action than animation) featured an African American man in the starring role. I think it is the whole idea of the "happy slave" that causes the controversy today. All the workers on the plantation are content as can be, and generally love and care for the white family they work for. The intended audience for this film was children though, so if Disney was going to make it they really had to make it like this, right? The story was not about plantation life at that time, but a kindly old man telling fables to children that highlight good morals they can use as they go through life. Oh, and Johnny is the only "privileged" white child Uncle Remus is telling his stories too. The other two children in the film are a little black boy who lives on the plantation and a poor white girl who lives nearby.

I don't believe the film is racist, but rather a sign of the times. It's entertaining enough and includes the classic songs "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" and "Everybody Has A Laughing Place." It's portrayal of African Americans during the Civil War era is in no way accurate, but no different than other old films like Gone With the Wind for example. I don't think it quite warrants the stigma associated with it. Unfortunately, by not releasing it on DVD, it's hard for anyone to make that decision for themselves.


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