Song of the South-1946
Director-Harve Foster, Wilfred Jackson
Starring-James Baskett, Billy Driscoll
Scott’s Review #893
Reviewed May 4, 2019
Song of the South (1946) is a Walt Disney film buried in the chambers of cinema history, reportedly an embarrassment never too soon forgotten by the legendary producer and his company. The reason for the ruckus is numerous overtones of racism that emerge throughout an otherwise darling film. Admittedly the film contains a racial cheeriness that cannot be interpreted as anything other than condescension to black folk and numerous stereotypes abound.
The mysterious appeal of the film during modern times is undoubtedly because of the surrounding controversies that hopefully can be put aside in favor of a resounding positive message and glimmering childlike innocence that resonates throughout the course of the film. The hybrid choice of live action and animation is superlative, eliciting a progressive never before seen, experience that would be shameful to be spoiled amid the surrounding controversies.
Taking place during the Reformation Era in Georgia, United States of America, a period of American history shortly after the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the film has quite the southern flavor and feel. Seven-year-old Johnny (Bobby Driscoll) is excited to visit his grandmother’s (Lucile Watson) lavish plantation outside of Atlanta along with his mother, Sally (Ruth Warrick), and father (Erik Rolf). He is soon devastated to learn that his father is to return to Atlanta for business, leaving Johnny behind.
Johnny plots to run away from the plantation and return to Atlanta but develops a special friendship with kindly Uncle Remus (James Baskett) who enchants the young boy with sentimental lesson stories about Br’er Rabbit and his foils Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear. Drama ensues when Johnny feuds with two poor neighbor boys and develops a friendship with their sister, Ginny. He also forms a close bond with Toby, a young black boy who lives on the plantation.
Thunderous applause must go to the creative minds who thought of the idea of mixing the animations with the live action drama which results in positive and compelling effect. As Uncle Remus repeatedly embarks on a new story for Johnny to listen to the audience knows they will be transported into a magical land of make-believe as a clear lesson results from these stories.
Uncle Remus is an inspiring character- extremely rare to find a black character written this way in 1946. Often black characters were reduced to maids, butlers, farm-hands, or other servant roles. While the film does not stray the course with casting these roles aplenty, including Uncle Remus himself, his character is different because he is beloved by little Johnny and respected by the grandmother, treated as part of the family. His opinion counts for something and not merely dismissed as rubbish.
The musical soundtrack to Song of the South is particularly cheery and easy to hum along to. The most recognizable song is “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” which reoccurs several times throughout the feature. The best rendition is at the end of the film when the mix of live action and animation culminates with the sing-along. My favorite appearance is when the “blue bird” referenced in the lyric comes into play resting on one character’s shoulder, true to the lyrical content.
The accusations of racism are justified as keen viewers will understand the condescension towards blacks in several scenes. More than once a parade of black people is seen traipsing through the plantation, singing songs, not exactly cheerfully but not despondent either. The scenes have eerie slavery overtones- despite the black character’s all presumably being free to come and go, the reality is they all work for white folk. The black plight and struggle are completely sugar-coated and feels dismissed.
The animated characters are voiced by strong ethnic voices and are presumed to be ridiculous. The usage of a Tar-Baby character, completely enshrined in black tar seems offensive almost teetering on the implication of promoting a blackface, minstrel show moment as the character, once white, is then turned black because of the tar. Song of the South is not the only film of its time to face racist accusations- the enormous Gone with the Wind (1939) and Jezebel (1938) faced similar heat.
Song of the South (1946) is recommended for those who can recognize the racism that exists throughout the film but also can appreciate the films artistic merits. Wise and resounding friendships between white and black characters are evident as is a lovely story about determination, fairness, and respect. The film should be both treasured for its nice moments and scolded for its racist overtones.