Dir. Harve Foster/Wilfred Jackson. Run Time: 94 mins. G
The bastard child of the Disney musical cannon Song Of The South has a history so littered with controversy that it is a rather difficult film to talk about. I mean, what is left to be said that hasn’t already been said before?
I suppose, however, a good place to start is to talk about why on earth I decided to spend my time watching it in the first place. Well, for starters I have to be honest and come right out with the fact that I threw this film into the player largely because it is so controversial. I mean, a movie that Disney has refused to release of home video within the United States, how could I go past that? Secondly, the movie does have a significant amount of historical value in the way in which it weaves live action footage (shot brilliantly in glorious Technicolor) together with animated sequences, and also in that it provides an interesting look at a particular part of society’s revisionist version of the reconstruction period in the South.
The plot itself is rather simple: a young boy (Bobby Driscoll) and his mother (Ruth Warrick) come down to Georgia to stay on a plantation where they meet Uncle Remus (James Baskett). Remus is a former slave and full-time story teller who throughout the film relates the old folk-tales of Bre’er Rabbit and Bre’er Fox to young Johnny in order to help the boy sort out his personal problems. Really, it’s not the world’s most interesting plot, but it serves well for the purposes of the film with Remus’s stories sweeping from live action into animation with easy grace.
The problems with this plot, however, arise quickly with the meeting of old Uncle Remus, who presents as an amalgamation of almost every racial cliché one could imagine. Not a good starting point to be sure. The other African-American characters too are presented in a very poor light, playing off the common prejudices around at the time. Their speech is hokey and sounds almost like it was torn straight from the script of a minstrel show, they sing traditional songs (with the director’s showing no sensitivity to the cultural implications of such music) as they go about their work, and they are all costumed in the manner one would have expected from D.W. Griffith‘s The Birth Of A Nation (1915). The film also gives an incredibly naïve and revisionist view of black-white relations at the time, showing benevolent masters and servants contented with their roles of servitude.
None of this is maliciously intended, I would wager, but nonetheless it is very problematic especially for an ostensible children’s film, and I agree wholeheartedly with the NAACP’s calls to boycott the movie when it was first released. I think the very fact that it not deliberately and maliciously offensive towards the people it marginalises makes it all ever worse. I mean, a child can easily be taught that hatefulness and overt racism are unacceptable, but to be shown such an insidious example from such a trusted source as Disney can provide a challenge for a parent to explain away. The movie contains no message or moral of equality, just a sly suggestion that ‘certain people’ should know their ‘place’.
I do not, however, agree with any calls to forget this film entirely. It has earned a place in the historical cannon of feature films and as such is deserving of study, analysis, and critical thought regarding its artistic merits. Song Of The South has a definite place in film libraries and the collections of students and historians, and I think that it is a place that needs to be preserved and not glossed over. I would just recommend that it be kept out of the hands of children.
As an aside to this discussion of the film’s problematic racial presentations I will also say that I have scored this film rather low for the simple fact that it is boring. It really doesn’t quite reach the same heights of grand magic that Disney films often do. The story is fractured and episodic, making it hard to become invested in the plight of the characters, the songs (bar one) are not particularly memorable, and, to be honest, the primary protagonist is unlikeable. It’s not poorly executed, in fact some of the location shooting and technical trickery is actually rather inspired, but it is poorly constructed as a film.
So, in conclusion, I’m going to have to express my ambivalence towards this movie. It has some artistic merits, but these are tempered by a series of filmic shortcomings, and it has a definite degree of historical and cultural value, but that comes primarily from the fact that it is really rather racist.
I suppose the only thing you can do is watch it for yourself and make up your own mind about how much value one can ascribe to this outcast from the Disney family.
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