Like virtually every Walt Disney film, Song of the South influenced American culture. From its songs like the Oscar-winning “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” to the famous Splash Mountain rides at most Disney parks, Song of the South has left a pretty solid mark.
Except you’ve almost definitely never, ever seen it.
In a presentation to shareholders in St. Louis today, Disney CEO Bob Iger said the company’s new streaming service, Disney+, will include “the entire Disney motion picture library.” That would appear to include Song of the South, which has never been released on home video*.
The issue with the movie is that its based on old southern folk tales known as the Uncle Remus stories. The stories themselves are controversial – they began as folk tales told orally by black slaves and were compiled into a book by Joel Chandler Harris. Harris learned journalism during the Civil War from a Georgia plantation owner and it was a that planation, known as Turnwold, where he learned what would become the Uncle Remus stories.
“In 1905 he wrote to his friend Andrew Carnegie that he would publish an Uncle Remus magazine, and that its purpose would be to further “the obliteration of prejudice against the blacks, the demand for a square deal, and the uplifting of both races so that they can look justice in the face without blushing.””Mildred Harris Camp Wright, granddaughter of Joel Chandler Harris, to the Atlanta Journal, 1967
Harris’ motivation for writing the stories was straightforward. He was a proponent of racial reconciliation, the idea that the post-Civil War south – the New South – should be a place of equality. As a journalist, Harris denounced racism and lynchings. Black leaders like often cited Harris’ writing in speeches. Harris saw the need to preserve the unique culture that black slaves had cultivated for themselves and the Uncle Remus stories were a key part of that. In 1906, Harris co-founded Uncle Remus’s Home Magazine as a way to encourage “both races so that they can look justice in the face without blushing.”
But Harris’ attempts to mimic the speech patterns of slaves has made the stories a target of criticism. And it isn’t like he wrote the stories, he merely put to paper stories he had heard from others and then collected a check that gave him a fairly comfortable old age.
When Walt Disney produced Song of the South, he took care to keep the stories accurate and tried, at least initially, to keep the picture from being “Uncle Tomism**.” But Disney’s mismanagement sent key production hands packing and the end result was heavily influenced by Dalton Reymond, a white Louisianan who wrote the original treatment. Disney – who considered Missouri his home – was sympathetic to an idyllic view of the south dripping with nostalgia for the glory of… something.
And this became Song of the South’s fatal flaw. The movie takes place after the Civil War and after the abolition of slavery. It depicts free black children learning the stories of their ancestors from Uncle Remus, played by James Baskett. Baskett famously couldn’t attend the premiere of the movie in Atlanta, Georgia, because it aired in a white-only cinema. Why did it air in a white-only cinema? Because cinemas in Atlanta were segregated by law. Why did the movie premiere in Atlanta? Because Walt Disney thought it should, since that’s where Joel Chandler Harris was from. Could Disney have said, “Hey, I’m not going to premiere my movie here unless the lead actor can go to the theater, which is literally exactly what Joel Chandler Harris would have wanted me to do?” Sure, but like maybe you don’t know a lot about Walt Disney*** if you think he would ever have done that.
Audiences loved the movie but critics were more divided. Black critics especially seemed very split between “thank goodness someone has adapted our culture for film in a way that allows us to preserve and share it” and “Joel Chandler Harris didn’t need to use his bootleg version of AAVE and you didn’t need to either, Disney”. The movie’s awkward dialogue and unclear setting (remember when I wrote “the movie takes place after the Civil War and after the abolition of slavery”? That’s not entirely clear from the film) made audiences – especially black audiences – uneasy.
But generally speaking, people enjoyed Song of the South. It was profitable. So why no home video release (in the United States; it was released in Europe and some Asian markets)?
In the era before home video, movies were often released periodically into cinemas. Disney used to do this on a reliable rotation (they later did this with home video, too, a practice known as “opening the Disney Vault”), and Song of the South was re-released in 1956, 1962, 1973, 1980, and 1986, the latter of which was to promote Splash Mountain. By 1986, audiences were more uncomfortable with the way Song of the South depicted race and black Americana.
Bob Iger said in 2010 that Song of the South was “fairly offensive” and that the company wouldn’t release it for home consumption, but there’s been a push to make it available, especially for students and researchers. It may be that Song of the South will be released on Disney+ with the same warning that Warner Bros. used on a recent release of Tom and Jerry:
“[These cartoons] may depict some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that were commonplace in American society. These depictions were wrong then and they are wrong today… some of these cartoons are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.”
* in the United States. You can watch it on VHS if you have a PAL-region VCR or if you don’t mind a Japanese dub track with no subtitles.
** The Italian release was titled ‘I Racconti Dello Zio Tom’ and even if you don’t know a lick of Italian you can guess that doesn’t stand for ‘The Stories of Uncle Remus’
*** Disney actually lobbied for Baskett to receive an Academy Award nomination for his performance, which marked one of the first times a black actor in a film had been a leading role and not a comic role and/or side character. The Academy, ever on the cutting edge of social change, awarded Baskett the first Oscar for a black male actor – but an honorary one. He was not nominated to receive a competitive award.