The Banned Disney Movie: History and "Song of the South"


Jul 8, 2003


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The Bottom Line The historical situation in "Song of the South" is neither as generally believed nor as represented by critics. This charming (if saccharine) fantasy should be available to the American public.

When Disney's "Song of the South" appeared in 1946, it was highly regarded. One of the songs won an Oscar. Despite some problems with the film, the NAACP seems to have said fairly little about it. It was revived in 1972 and again as late as 1986. And then it disappeared. "Song" has never appeared on VHS (much less DVD) in this country. There was a European PAL version on VHS, but production of that has now stopped and American sets require NTSC anyway.

Meanwhile, the Disney people, who clearly have no plans to release "Song", maintain a stony silence on the issue. It's hard to ascertain why. It's generally considered that they fear some sort of really negative PR fallout should they actually release the film in the States. They shouldn't have to, considering the historical context of the film itself and of the time in which it was made. However, consider that they have already cut about 30 seconds from the original Fantasia, an even earlier film (to which later objections were far more reasonable).

There is, by the way, one web site where you can buy "Song", both on DVD and (NTSC) VHS: songofthesouth.com. These are reproductions of the original PAL tape, which is a reproduction of the existing print … that is, the picture and sound have not been enhanced nor improved in any way. Still, it's acceptable as the vintage material it is.

The question is, why is "Song" America's forbidden film? The short answer is easy: "Song" presents an idealized and unrealistic view of plantation life in the Old South. The correct answer is even shorter: for no good reason. To begin with, let's dispose of the myth that the film's setting is antebellum. It's actually set after the end of the Slavers' Rebellion of 1861-1865. How do we know this? There's nothing in the film that overtly sets it in a particular time other than the latter half of the 19th Century. But one incident stands out as a time reference. Toward the end of "Song", Uncle Remus says that he's going to leave the plantation; and shortly after that, he does leave it. He therefore cannot have been a slave since slaves never had any such right of movement. If Uncle Remus wasn't a slave, it's a fair bet nobody else was, either - slaves, even old, retired "uncles", were virtually never manumitted. This means that the people we see living and working on the plantation are either ex-slaves who have remained as share-croppers or ex-slaves who have chosen to remain on the plantation as employed workers (not uncommon after the Slavers' Rebellion where antebellum working conditions had been congenial.

This being so, then the vision of plantation life we see in "Song" isn't entirely unrealistic. Idealized, however, certainly. Where's the actual problem? The Hollywood movie machine is notorious for never letting the facts stand in the way of a good story: the alleged biography of Cole Porter is a tissue of lies (and so on and on). The Disney studio simply wasn't in the business of social commentary and there's no reason to expect them to have been. Furthermore, Disney was basically a feel-good outfit, and "Song" is a cloying little fantasy with good animated segments, plain and simple. Introducing Simon Legree into it (e.g.) makes as much sense as putting scenes of real archaeological activity into the Indiana Jones pictures. The fact is that "Song of the South" isn't history, doesn't pretend to be, and shouldn't be expected to be. And it never was about slaves or slavery.

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