Song of the South, a 1946 Disney film mixing animation and live action, was based on the “Uncle Remus” stories of Joel Chandler Harris. Harris, who had grown up in Georgia during the Civil War, spent a lifetime compiling and publishing the tales told to him by former slaves. These stories — many of which Harris learned from an old Black man he called “Uncle George” — were first published as columns in the Atlanta Constitution and were later syndicated nationwide and published in book form. Harris’s Uncle Remus was a fictitious old slave and philosopher who told entertaining fables about Br’er Rabbit and other woodland creatures in a Southern Black dialect.
Song of the South consists of animated sequences featuring Uncle Remus characters such as Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear, framed by live-action portions in which Uncle Remus (portrayed by actor James Baskett, who won a special Oscar for his efforts) tells the stories to a little white boy upset over his parents’ impending divorce. Although some Blacks have always been uneasy about the minstrel tradition of the Uncle Remus stories, the major objections to Song of the South have had to do with the live-action portions. The film has been criticized both for “making slavery appear pleasant” and “pretending slavery didn’t exist,” even though the film (like Harris’ original collection of stories) is set after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. Still, as folklorist Patricia A. Turner wrote:
Disney’s 20th century re-creation of Harris’s frame story is much more heinous than the original. The days on the plantation located in “the United States of Georgia” begin and end with unsupervised Blacks singing songs about their wonderful home as they march to and from the fields. Disney and company made no attempt to to render the music in the style of the spirituals and work songs that would have been sung during this era. They provided no indication regarding the status of the Blacks on the plantation. Joel Chandler Harris set his stories in the post-slavery era, but Disney’s version seems to take place during a surreal time when Blacks lived on slave quarters on a plantation, worked diligently for no visible reward and considered Atlanta a viable place for an old Black man to set out for.
Kind old Uncle Remus caters to the needs of the young white boy whose father has inexplicably left him and his mother at the plantation. An obviously ill-kept Black child of the same age named Toby is assigned to look after the white boy, Johnny. Although Toby makes one reference to his “ma,” his parents are nowhere to be seen. The African-American adults in the film pay attention to him only when he neglects his responsibilities as Johnny’s playmate-keeper. He is up before Johnny in the morning in order to bring his white charge water to wash with and keep him entertained.
The boys befriend a little blond girl, Ginny, whose family clearly represents the neighborhood’s white trash. Although Johnny coaxes his mother into inviting Ginny to his fancy birthday party at the big house, Toby is curiously absent from the party scenes. Toby is good enough to catch frogs with, but not good enough to have birthday cake with. When Toby and Johnny are with Uncle Remus, the gray-haired Black man directs most of his attention to the white child. Thus Blacks on the plantation are seen as willingly subservient to the whites to the extent that they overlook the needs of their own children. When Johnny’s mother threatens to keep her son away from the old gentleman’s cabin, Uncle Remus is so hurt that he starts to run away. In the world that Disney made, the Blacks sublimate their own lives in order to be better servants to the white family. If Disney had truly understood the message of the tales he animated so delightfully, he would have realized the extent of distortion of the frame story.
The NAACP acknowledged “the remarkable artistic merit” of the film when it was first released, but decried “the impression it gives of an idyllic master-slave relationship”. Disney re-released the film in 1956 but then kept it out of circulation all throughout the turbulent civil rights era of the 1960s. In 1970 Disney announced in Variety that Song of the South had been “permanently” retired, but the studio eventually changed its mind and re-released the film theatrically in 1972, 1981, and again in 1986 for a fortieth anniversary celebration. Although the film has only been issued for the home video market in various European and Asian countries, Disney’s reluctance to market it in the USA is not a reaction to an alleged threat by the NAACP to boycott Disney products. The NAACP fielded objections to Song of the South when it premiered, but it has no current position on the movie.