If there’s one movie in their back catalog that Disney would really love to consign to oblivion, it’s Song of the South (1946). While a technical marvel with some wonderful songs and one outstanding performance, the racial stereotypes and revisionist history portrayed make it something that will never see another domestic release in any format.
It’s a teeny bit of a shame, in some small ways, because there are a few things in it that should be mentioned in its defense. Perhaps there’s even enough there to justify a proper reappraisal.
The movie is essentially a ‘frame-tale’, a literary device going back centuries. In Disney’s continuing plundering (to use the worst term) of folklore and legends from around the world, this movie was designed to present the southern folklore tales of Br’er Rabbit et al. as collected by Joel Chandler Harris. When he wasn’t a folklorist, Harris was a post-Civil War journalist in Atlanta who advocated strongly for equal rights for blacks. Despite their acknowledged literary influence, Harris’ “Uncle Remus” tales have come under their own criticism of late. But that’s something for another writer to deal with.
One should also point out the performance of James Baskett as Uncle Remus. Originally asked just to provide the voice for one of the many animated characters, he impressed everyone to the point where Walt Disney personally asked him to try out for the role of Remus. Contemporary critics praised his acting, and many important Hollywood figures (including Disney) lobbied for him to get an Oscar. Baskett would become the first black man to win the honor, in 1948, shortly before his death.
It’s kind of interesting that the first blacks to win Academy Awards earned them for roles and movies that were “problematic” at best (Hattie McDaniel won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as “Mammy” in Gone With the Wind).
The overall story of the movie is pretty simple. A family brings their children to a relative’s old plantation home in the south. The children are dismayed to find that their parents are on the verge of separating. The boy tries to run away, but he is found by Uncle Remus. Remus regales him with stories until his parents find him and bring him back. Repeat that a few times – the kids, a boy and girl, try to run away or get in trouble, Uncle Remus finds them and helps them out. Eventually, everyone reconciles and lives happily ever after. Basically. We guess.
So, can this idea be saved?
I’ve got some thoughts.
Keep the basic frame-tale. Set in the late 1930s, a family comes to visit relatives somewhere in the Deep South. The two kids, bored and ignored, are told to “go outside and play”. They find the shack of an old sharecropper, “Uncle” Remus, who works as a general handyman in the area. Over the course of the family’s visit, the kids see him every day, and he regales them with stories of his life.
They first see him idly fussing with a guitar – that leads to his telling them about “Delta Blues”, and legendary musicians like Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Lizzie “Memphis Minnie” Douglas….
A framed photo on the wall of his shack gets him talking about the great Black vaudeville performers he’d seen over the years. Bert Williams. The Whitman Sisters. Lincoln “Stepin Fetchit” Perry….
He digs out an old baseball glove to play catch with them, and he tells of the Negro Leagues. He never played professionally, but he once was part of a team that played against a team of barnstorming All-Stars. He brags about striking out Oscar Charleston…
On their last day, the kids stop by to say goodbye. Remus thanks them for coming to visit. He tells them that since he’s got no kids of his own, he’s going to tell them some stories that he learned from his father, who learned them from his father, who got them who knows where. He hopes that they will pass the stories on to their children. And he tells them the tales of Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox…..
As in the original, the tales will be animated. But I’d give each day’s tale(s) to a different animator – an African-American one, obviously. Get as many African-American writers, musicians, etc. to work on the movie. The stories are part of their history; they should be the ones to tell it.
Call it “Songs FROM the South” if you have to. I think the stories are worth telling.