Animated Classics Review #7: Song of the South

This is part of an ongoing series where we watch each theatrical Disney Animated Classic and review it.  To catch up with previous ones, please start here.

Song of the South Review

by: Terrence Green 

I hesitated to watch Song of the South.  Everything that I had heard and read regarding the movie made it seem…controversial to say the least.  Even still, we at EarzUp are not afraid to tackle the tough topics, so here we go!

The movie starts out with Mr. and Mrs. Jones and their son Johnny heading to boy’s Grandmother’s plantation accompanied by his nanny, Tempy (who won an Oscar for portraying “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind.)  Upon arrival, Johnny’s dad breaks the news that he will be returning home without the remainder of the family.  While this is sad, Johnny’s response to this abandonment (which was to run away) leads to him meeting Uncle Remus and learning of all of the great stories of Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear. 

Uncle Remus is the resident story teller and wise man of the sharecroppers that live on the plantation.  His stories wonderfully intertwine the fantasy of Br’er Rabbit’s world and the practicality of the stories being told. The story sequences start with Uncle Remus singing Zipadeedoodah with various animals.  This whole sequence reminds me a lot of the race scene from Mary Poppins since it’s a mixture of animation and live action actors. Rabbit is boarding up his house because he’s off to run away from his trouble.  He gets caught by Br’er Fox’s trap (he lives on chickapee hill).  Br’er Bear is big and stupid and is tricked by Br’er Rabbit into taking his place in the trap, which is a rope hanging from a tree. 

 Johnny learns a lot from Uncle Remus like friendship and wisdom.  Johnny also becomes friends with a little boy named Toby and a little girl name Ginny Favers.  His friendship with these kids lead him to overcoming fears of local bullies, but there are also a few times where they also get into a bit of trouble (like missing Johnny’s birthday party because they’re too busy listening to Uncle Remus’ story about the Laughing Place.)  Whenever they do get into trouble, Uncle Remus is right there with a story that teaches them a lesson regarding their situation.  After Johnny misses his birthday, his grandmother forces him and Uncle Remus to no longer spend any time together.  Dejected, Remus packs up to head to Atlanta.  Johnny, hearing that Johnny sees him leaving and runs after him only to be attacked by the plantation bull.  As Johnny hovers between life and death, he calls for Uncle Remus even though his father came back.  Uncle Remus being there and telling him another story saves his life.  The remainder of the movie is Br’er Fox (the smart one) and Br’er Bear (the dummy) trying to catch Br’er Rabbit…by using a tar baby.

There’s your rundown of the movie, but why is it that 99% of those reading this review have never seen the movie?  Well, Disney has tried to do two things with this movie: first, they have tried to sweep it under the rug.  Try to find this movie on Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu.  You won’t find it.  Why?  Well, there are definitely some things within the movie that are considered insensitive if not downright racist.  Without getting into all of the intricacies of the time, the African-Americans on the plantation were, most likely, recently freed slaves turned sharecroppers immediately after the Civil War based on the time and setting of the movie.  While that is part of history, the dialect used and portrayal of African-Americans in the movie, both the live actors and the animated animals, is viewed as one that would be used by those of lesser status in society.  This is made even more apparent when viewing the difference in speech between those that own the plantation and the sharecroppers.

To add more to that, the “tar baby” used to trick Br’er Rabbit was made to look like an extremely dark African-American baby with big red lips and bright white teeth.  This was something widely used in minstrels shows of the time which featured White actors in black face portraying comically exaggerated, lazy, dim-witted, and happy-go-lucky Black people.  Honestly, the majority of the African-American actors in the movie sounded like Mush Mouth from the Fat Albert Show.   The movie was released in 1946 and premiered in Atlanta which was still a segregated state.  That means that the African-Americans actors in the movie could not attend the premier.  Second, Disney has used the “Br’er” characters and Splash Mountain within its various theme parks to “waterdown” the movie and lessen it’s racial impact.  Major areas within the rides were designed to not incorporate possibly racist elements from the movie (i.e. in Splash Mountain, Br’er Rabbit is trapped by a sticky bee hive instead of the aforementioned tar baby.) 

 The movies songs are definitely entertaining – Zip-a-dee-doodah made its premier in this movie – but even this song is overshadowed by the racial undertones.  My kids love that song so I thought that they may enjoy the movie, and I decided to screen the movie first.

They will not be watching the movie.

I do not like the way that African-Americans were portrayed in this movie, and I’m not sure that I want to tackle the “slavery” talk with my 5 year old.  So, should it be banned?  Yes…and no.  I am definitely one that believes that artists should be able to present their art in an uncensored way.  The issue that I have is that the portrayal of African-Americans within the film is damaging in this day and age especially with the racial tension within our country.  As historically accurate as the portrayals may be, I do not see the African-American characters as role models whose speech should be immolated by young viewers.  For this reason, I would not recommend this movie for kids and highly doubt that you will see it coming out of the Disney vault anytime soon.

It might be actual, but is everything really satisfactual?

7 Replies to “Animated Classics Review #7: Song of the South

  1. How did you get access to watch Song of the South? I remember seeing it as a kid, but I would like to see it as an adult. I’m sure it would be a totally different experience.

  2. Agreed with everything except “…[the Tar Baby] was made to look like an extremely dark African-American baby with big red lips and bright white teeth.”
    But… but… look again, the Tar Baby doesn’t have a mouth, let alone lips and teeth. Not saying it’s not an embarrassing image, being jet black, but it doesn’t have those specific elements you mentioned at all.

  3. Absurd.

    First of all, the question of banning this movie, should always be answered with an emphatic “NO”!. No speech, or art should ever be banned. If you don’t like it, don’t watch it. You don’t get to decide what I like and what I watch. Ban it for your children, not for mine.

    Next, history should never be changed to be inoffensive to modern sensibilities. There is no reason to, and it can be extremely harmful. You may be correct that your 5 year old is too young to understand the topic of slavery, that is your call. However, my 10 year old isn’t. I would gladly explain to her the dialect of the South. How slaves were purposely kept ignorant, and how freed slaves were certainly free from bondage, but not from poverty or lack of education. While “The Song of the South” is definitely a fantastical story, it’s true depiction of an African American during this time of amazing change in our country is historically relevant. Children can better understand Equal rights if they better understand the challenges presented to those seeking equality. It’s not simply a black and white issue. It wasn’t just evil slave owners battling righteous defenders of equality. The good guys didn’t just win, and everything was good with the world. It was far more complex than that. Uncle Remus isn’t a negative portrayal, he is a realistic one. Pretending that every former slave was Frederick Douglas writing a novel is naive. Realizing that former slaves had more to overcome than chains helps one understand our history better. Why hide it? Who is offended? And even if people are offended, who cares? History is offensive. The Nazis were offensive, yet we still learn about them, and no one is banning Schindler’s list.

    If Disney depicted African Americans as less than they were, or acted as if they deserved to be oppressed in some way, or hinted at some sort of genetic inferiority, I would agree and not expose my children to it. However, this is a story about a (probable) former slave, sharecropper who is kind and caring and tells wonderful stories in the dialect of his time. The speech doesn’t reflect stupidity, or a lesser human being, it is simply consistent with the Southern African American subculture of Reconstruction. In 40 years will you make movies in which Tupac Shakur speaks like John F Kennedy to hide the Urbonics of the 80’s and 90’s? Will you whitewash the speech of Ice Cube and NWA because they do not sound like the intelligent business owners of the day? African American sharecroppers and Plantation owners spoke differently. That is not inherently racist. The tar baby is black because tar is black. That is not racist. We need to stop looking at differences as being racism. They are just differences.

    I would recommend anyone watch Song of the South for its amazing accomplishments in filmmaking, for its story-telling, and for its depiction of a short historical time in American History.

    1. Honestly, I couldn’t disagree with you more, but I guess that’s the benefit of opinion pieces and opinion-based responses. Cheers!

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