- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2007

ORLANDO, Fla.

Walt Disney Co.’s 1946 film “Song of the South” was historic. It was Disney’s first big live-action and animation picture, and it produced one of the company’s most famous songs: the Oscar-winning “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” The Splash Mountain rides at its Orlando and Anaheim, Calif., theme parks reprise the movie’s story line.

But the movie remains hidden in the Disney archives. It has never been released on video in the United States. Its amiable portrayal of the life of Southern plantation blacks sometime in the mid-19th century has been criticized as racist. The film’s 60th anniversary passed last year without a whisper of official re-release — unusual for Disney — but President and Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger recently said the company is “reconsidering.”

The reissue probably would spark debate, but it could be a big seller. Nearly 115,000 people have signed a petition online urging Disney to make the movie available. Out-of-print international copies routinely sell online for $50 to $90, some even more than $100. Bootleg copies sometimes can sell for even more than that.

“The question of ‘Song of the South’ comes up periodically; in fact, it was raised at last year’s annual meeting,” Mr. Iger told a recent stockholders meeting in New Orleans. “And since that time, we’ve decided to take a look at it again because we’ve had numerous requests about bringing it out. Our concern was that a film that was made so many decades ago being brought out today perhaps could be either misinterpreted or that it would be somewhat challenging in terms of providing the appropriate context.”

“Song of the South” was shown in theater re-release in 1956, 1972 and 1986. Both animated and live-action, it tells the story of a young white boy, Johnny, who goes to live on his grandparents’ Georgia plantation when his parents separate. Johnny is charmed by Uncle Remus — a black servant — and his fables of Brer Rabbit, Brer Bear and Brer Fox, which are actual black folk tales.

Uncle Remus’ stories, as collected in the book by Joel Chandler Harris, include that of the “tar baby.” Republican presidential candidates Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney were scolded for using the term to describe problems and situations difficult to disengage. In “Song of the South,” the term describes a trick Brer Fox and Brer Bear used to catch the rabbit, disguising a lump of tar to ensnare their prey. The term has been imagined by some to be a derogatory term for blacks, regardless of context, though this was not in the Joel Chandler Harris story.

The movie doesn’t make clear whether the stories take place before or after the Civil War, and blacks on the plantation are never referred to as slaves. They work for the family and live in rude shacks on dirt roads, as do some of the poor white characters, including a pretty girl who falls into a mud hole on her way to a birthday party at the mansion. The dialogue of both black and white characters is full of colloquial language — “ain’t nevers,” “ain’t nobodys,” “you tells,” and “dem days’s.”

“In today’s environment, ‘Song of the South’ probably doesn’t have a lot of meaning, especially to the younger audiences,” says James Pappas, associate professor of African-American studies at the University of New York at Buffalo. “Older audiences probably would have more of a connection with the stereotypes, which were considered harmless at the time.”

The professor says it’s not clear to him that the movie is intentionally racist, but he thinks it inappropriately projects Uncle Remus as a happy, laughing storyteller.

“Gone with the Wind,” produced seven years earlier, has been similarly criticized, and Hattie McDaniel, who won an Oscar as Scarlett O’Hara’s nanny in “Gone with the Wind,” appears in “Song of the South” as well.

Disney’s movies are popular with collectors, and Disney has kept sales strong by tightly controlling when they are available. Christian Willis, a 26-year-old computer executive in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., started a “Song of the South” fan site in 1999 (www.songofthesouth.net) to showcase memorabilia and soon expanded it into a clearinghouse for information on the movie. The Web site averages about 800 hits a day.

“Stereotypes did exist on the screen,” he said. “But if you look at other films of that time period, I think ‘Song of the South’ was really quite tame in that regard. I think Disney did make an effort to show African-Americans in a more positive light.”


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