Why is Disney’s Song of the South Controversial?

Disney 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 become like them. At the time of writing this article, almost 449 movies have been released under the banner of Walt Disney Pictures.

Disneyland currently boasts more than 60 attractions with a majority of them inspired by the movies it has released. However, there exists a Rare Movies by Disney that has one of the most popular rides based on it but the movie itself is nowhere to be found owing to its controversial nature. For those 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. What makes the movie special is that it is a live-action/animated musical drama film which means the movie is 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 different instances, Johnny is faced with certain dire situations, and 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 of the 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 the Uncle Remus was modelled after Uncle Tom, a racist stereotype to badly portray an African American with 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, but 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 reception of the movie was not all drab. Many were in support of the movie and defended the premise. 

Support for the Song of the South

There is a fan site, Song of the South.net, dedicated to providing the most information on the movie since 2000. The website covers everything from memorabilia to song lyrics. There is a petition on Change.org with over 7000 signatures to release Song of the South on Disney Plus.

In 2017, Whoopi Goldberg, recipient of multiple prestigious awards such 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, have positive emotions attached with the movie. 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 i.e., the 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 public domain in the U.S.

How to watch Song of the South?

Song of the South is not available on any premium streaming platforms or as a DVD / VHS release in the US either. Thankfully, the full-length film has been released in its entirety on VHS and LaserDisc in various European and Asian countries. Certain media archives and acquisition agencies with out of print movie titles in DVD such as Classic Movies etc. are the only place on the internet where you can legally acquire Song of the Sound DVD. Additionally, there exist bootleg versions that are sourced from laserdisc from the Hong Kong region, but the quality is quite questionable. 

Wrapping Up

Normal human tendency forces us to yearn for something that is unattainable. From today’s standards and ideologies, Song of the South may not be much offensive but this hasn’t wavered Disney about releasing it officially. The legacy of the movie ended with the retooling of Splash Mountain, a log flume ride inspired from 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 is on the day it was released in 1945.