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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

Week # 12: Song of the South

(Originally published on 3/25/22)


Song of the South

Run time: 94 min.

Release Date: November 12, 1946

Where/when I first saw it: VHS bootleg off Japanese laserdisc, mid-’90s

How I watched it today: DVD transfer of said bootleg, Saturday afternoon

Okay, let’s start with some positives here, because there are positives. The mix of live-action and animation had proved itself to be a charming and effective gimmick, based on the results of “The Three Caballeros” just a year prior. With “Song of the South,” the Disney artists and directors would push the envelope even further by incorporating more or a variety of different types of shots and giving actor James Baskett more complex sequences and visual queues to work with and invent for himself as he worked. He does a commendable job here for something that has never been easy. To this day, actors who work in movies that are heavy with special effects have a difficult time acting against tennis balls, but Baskett, while maybe not the first to do it, was certainly the first to have done it to this extent. It’s remarkable what he pulled off. You never doubt the effect for a second and the final moments of the film are absolutely magical.

Also, the film was lensed by Gregg Toland (“Citizen Kane”), so every shot looks like they got just the right magic hour moment. It’s one of the most “golden” movies I’ve ever seen. Just drenched in warm sunlight. That should be reason enough to release it on a blu-ray, but I cannot see that happening. At all.

This brings us to the negative, which cannot be avoided. Its origins stretch back several generations to the stories of Br’er Rabbit and the character of Uncle Remus. These are not original Disney creations, but Disney himself was so charmed by the source material, he knew these stories would make for an interesting film. I don’t believe he had any hatred in his heart of hearts when he made the film. He simply lacked racial sensitivity with regards to portrayal of blacks in cinema. The conversations we have today about race didn’t exist in the forefront back then as it does now. Far from it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to let him off the hook here. He knew people were upset about the film before it was released. He likely felt that once people see the movie, they will be blown away by it and all will be forgiven. Again, he lacked that awareness. Thus, “Song of the South” continues to age more and more poorly with each passing decade, with the image of Remus as the “happy slave” (though technically, he’s not really a slave) and the “tar baby” sequence that will keep this movie from ever seeing the light of day ever again.

That being said, I don't believe in banning it either. It’s a misguided effort, to say the least, but it can be a useful educational tool when teaching about race and media and how images are consumed and validated. Race problems aside, it’s also a corny and mawkish film, but that could also be a symptom of a studio that hasn’t learned how to deal with real actors in real settings yet. It also fits in with this era of Disney’s “Package films,” since the film is broken up between the live-action drama and Uncle Remus’ stories of Br-er Rabbit, though both are continuing storylines and the animated bits are not stand-alone cartoons. It’s the lack of forward momentum in the overall story that makes it fit in with other Disney works of this era. There’s nothing interesting to latch onto. Just bits and pieces of interest.

“Song of the South” remains a fascinating piece of animation history and a cultural tentpole that continues to spark great debates. There’s a lot here to make one wince and cringe while watching it, while also being a technical wonder for its time. Disney Studios can only hide the movie so much. Anyone curious to see it will find a way to satisfy that curiosity. It’s not hard. Its status as a legendary and often passed-around bootleg is also the reason one can’t imagine the Disney catalog without “Song of the South.”


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