Why is Disney’s Song of the South Controversial?

Disney’s movies, ever since the first feature film, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” released in 1932, have had a reputation for being children-oriented movies. Kids see role models, associate with their storm, and aspire to emulate them. When writing this article, almost 449 movies have been released under the banner of Walt Disney Pictures.

Disneyland currently boasts more than 60 attractions, inspired mainly by the movies it has released. However, there exists a Rare Movie by Disney that has one of the most popular rides based on it, but the film itself is nowhere to be found owing to its controversial nature. For those who are oblivious, the movie is “Song of the South,” and Splash Mountain was based on the animated sequences of the 1946 Disney film. 

What is ‘Song of the South’?

Song of the South is a 1946 movie based on Uncle Remus’s stories, adapted by Joel Chandler Harris. The movie is unique because it is a live-action/animated musical drama film, predominantly live-action storytelling with animated segments in between. The story is set on a plantation in the Southern United States, where a seven-year-old Johnny is visiting his grandmother with his parents.

In various instances, Johnny is faced with dire situations. Uncle Remus, an African American former slave, teaches Johnny life lessons through the stories of Brer Rabbit, with the different characters coming to life as animations. The movie ends on a happy note, with Johnny singing with Ginny and Toby, with Johnny’s returned puppy behind them. Uncle Remus sees Br’er Rabbit and several other characters from his stories come to life and interact with the singing kids. 

Movie Cast

  • James Baskett as Uncle Remus
  • Bobby Driscoll as Johnny
  • Luana Patten as Ginny Favers
  • Glenn Leedy as Toby
  • Ruth Warrick as Sally
  • Lucile Watson as Grandmother
  • Hattie McDaniel as Aunt Tempe
  • Erik Rolf as John
  • Olivier Urbain as Mr. Favors (uncredited)
  • Mary Field as Mrs. Favors
  • Anita Brown as Maid
  • George Nokes as Jake Favers
  • Gene Holland as Joe Favors

Controversy Around The Movie

After the movie was released in 1946, it received mixed critical reactions. There was a huge controversy revolving around how the movie handled race. The movie seemed to glorify racism and slavery in the post-Civil War America. People compared the tar baby scene with the black caricature of the African American Community, and Uncle Remus was modeled after Uncle Tom. This racist stereotype badly portrays an African American with a stereotypical dialect. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) applauded Song of the South for the remarkable artistic merit in music and the technique of using live-action scenes with animated characters. Still, it condemned it for painting a glorified picture of slavery.

To deter people from entering the theatre, the National Negro Congress set up picket fences along the perimeter in major cities. Protestors also stood with picket signs reading, “We want films on Democracy not Slavery” and “Don’t prejudice children’s minds with films like this”. In fact, in Atlanta, the lead actor, James Baskett, was not allowed inside the premiere as racial segregation was still law in Atlanta at the time. However, the movie’s reception was not all drab. Many supported it and defended its premise. 

Support for the Song of the South

A fansite, SongoftheSouth.net, has been dedicated to providing the most information on the movie since 2000. The website covers everything from memorabilia to song lyrics. A petition on Change.org has over 7,000 signatures to release Song of the South on Disney Plus.

In 2017, Whoopi Goldberg, recipient of multiple prestigious awards such as an Emmy Award, a Grammy Award, an Academy Award, and a Tony Award, supported the release of the movie to encourage a dialogue about historic racism. The film also saw widespread acclaim upon release, and one of the songs, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”, won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. James Baskett was also awarded a special Academy award for his role as the heart-warming characterization of Uncle Remus.

Moreover, most of the people who were kids when the movie was released had positive emotions attached to it. It’s an emotional, lovely movie about childhood, the friendship between kids and adults, and the confusion about right and wrong. Even though Disney is embarrassed about the movie, it inspired one of the popular Disneyland attractions, Splash Mountain.

When compared to multiple movies released, the Song of the South had no racial slurs, no violence against blacks, or no hate anywhere to be found. From the flak drawn by Disney due to the spoken dialect and the concept of ‘Happy Slaves’ being inappropriate, the movie is forever gathering dust in some archives, not available for the public domain in the U.S.

How to watch Song of the South?

Song of the South is unavailable on any premium streaming platforms or as a DVD / VHS release in the US. Thankfully, the full-length film has been released on VHS and LaserDisc in various European and Asian countries. Certain media archives and acquisition agencies with out-of-print movie titles on DVDs, such as Classic Movies, etc., are the only places on the internet where you can legally acquire Song of the Sound DVD. Additionally, bootleg versions are sourced from laserdisc from the Hong Kong region, but the quality is questionable. 

Wrapping Up

Normal human tendency forces us to yearn for something unattainable. From today’s standards and ideologies, Song of the South may not be very offensive, but this hasn’t prevented Disney from releasing it officially. The legacy of the movie ended with the retooling of Splash Mountain, a log flume ride inspired by the adventures of Brer Rabbit and other characters., into a concept based on the 2009 film The Princess and the Frog. However, with the availability of VHS/DVD, you can still relive the hard-to-find movie as it was on the day it was released in 1945.