Song of the South review by The Grim Ringler

There are few movies that are as interesting and infamous as Disneys Song of the South.Made by Disney in an era where racism was still rampant and when few gave a second thought to whether or not the Old South should still have any romanticism left to it. And I say all this not as a way of excusing Song of the South for some of the racist notions that pop up during the film but as an explanation as to why this stuff was allowed. I dont think, and I naturally have to make a huge assumption here, that Disney or any of his people would intentionally have made a film that glorified slavery or made it seem as if slaves enjoyed their lives, but rather in this era in American history it was still very easy, too easy in fact, to forget the history that was still so vibrant and alive and to quite literally white wash the more grim aspects of our history.

At its heart, Song of the South is a folk tale, or rather a series of folk tales presented with a wrap-around story featuring a man named Uncle Remus. A young boy named Johnny comes with his mother to live on his grandmothers plantation when his father returns to the city to continue his work, which of course breaks Johnny and his mothers hearts. Feeling utterly abandoned and alone Johnny finds Uncle Remus, an elderly slave on the plantation that seems to have had his working days behind him and now serves as a makeshift patriarch to the slaves on the plantation. And as such Remus is known primarily as a story-teller, spinning yarns about talking animals that all seem to have more than a few human failings and which always seem to run into trouble which they have to get themselves free of. The star of many of these stories is Brer Rabbit, and the films animation focuses on this character and his run-ins with Brer Fox and Brer Bear, two animals that have been made fools by Brer Rabbit on more than one occasion and who want nothing more than to eat this rabbit and be done with him. Johnny falls in love with the stories Remus tells but can never seem to get over the loss of his father, despite Remus friendship. What does seem to cure his loneliness though is a friendship with a young boy that is, we assume, born into slavery, a poor young girl living on the plantation, and an adorable puppy the girl has given Johnny. Johnny has been forbidden to have this dog though so he tricks Remus into keeping it for him, insisting he has to or else the girls brothers will kill the poor thing (which they intend to do). When Johnnys mother finds out about it all though she has it out with Remus and, after having been told twice not to interfere with the child, he feels his usefulness has left him and he decides he must leave the plantation and essentially run away. Finding out about this Johnny chases after Remus and foolishly takes a short cut through a fenced off area that holds a bull and naturally Johnny and the bull have a meeting of the minds and Johnny loses. The plantation is heartsick with fear that Johnny, out cold and in bed being attended to by his mother, grandmother, and others, may die. But there is one soul that can bring Johnny out of the fog he is in and that is Remus and his stories of Brer Rabbit, and slowly Johnny comes to, and just in time to see his fathers arrival and to have his family together again.

All in all Song of the South is a very sappy, very melodramatic story about family and about what love can do. It is also about the power of stories when used as a tool to tell lessons and as a way to bring people together. And I gotta say, its a pretty neat movie. I loved it as a kid and I still love it. Its sickly sweet and grossly sentimental but that is sort of the reason you grow to like the film, as well as the fact that Remus and Brer Rabbit are such wonderful characters.

But... to address some of the problems in the film that have lead to it being shelved indefinitely since the last time it made its way through theaters in the seventies there are very good reasons this is such a controversial film. First is the fact that the slaves in this film, despite living on a plantation, seem pretty darned content with their lives. Now I guess that 1. Disney was not making a historical film but was instead using the true setting for the men that really did make up who Remus is and 2. the idea could be that the grandmother is not a cruel master but treats all the slaves as family. But, yeah, they are still slaves, and thus, it feels very creepy to see them happy. Which, you know, is very valid, but we also have to take the film in context and not damn it outright. Uncle Remus doesnt bother me at all as a character though as he is a very sweet, very charming, very good man. He adopts Johnny despite his being the masters grandson, and he treats everyone with the same amount of respect, as he would want to get. He is never portrayed as simple or foolish, and never does he Yes massah anyone, though he does know who is boss, but the grandmother truly does treat him as an equal so I have to assess that Remus is a freed man, though its never said (Having checked on online site {} I saw that this is set after the slaves were freed and Remus and the others there are workers, sorry for the goof up).What bothered me in the film were the voices of Brer Rabbit, Bear, and Fox as their voices are definite caricatures and it really bothered me. I got the idea, that I mean, essentially, these were black characters as they were the creations of a black man, but still and all, the use of the voices really does walk the line of racist, each character being so over-the-top in its presentation as to give one images of any number of white impressions of poor black folk. And it is this, more than anything else, that I can see upsetting people. Yes, there is a tar-baby that traps Brer Rabbit in one episode, but I didnt really take it so much as a racist thing as much as I took it as a great way to trick and trap Brer Rabbit.

Is this a classic though? In ways it is and in ways it isnt. It is in that it has some beautiful animation, a tremendous theme song, and a wonderful acting performance by the man that played Remus, but it isnt great filmmaking. Its middle-of-the-road Disney. Does it deserve to be seen, in my mind it most certainly does. If nothing else, this is a very good example of not judging a films merits and the era it was made in by our current perceptions, and I think its a good teaching tool as an example of how different America was in the way it viewed the south compared to how we view it today. As a film, its good, but as a means of addressing a lot of issues concerning race, this is brilliant.

But how the hell do you release it? Disney cannot release it as it is, without some sort of contextual placement and explanation. So what I would propose is that they release Song of the South in their Disney Treasures collection and, along with the film, have commentary from a film and Disney historian, and another track with some black scholars. I would also have any and all extras they might find for the film. To round it all out I would have as an extra a round-table discussion of the film, of racism in film, and of race in general. Yes, its pretty heady stuff for Disney, and especially a Disney kids film but this needs to be done so we can hear why it is that this is such a controversial film. This is a film that deserves to be released but may never see the light of day because of its controversial themes, but I think that shelving it is a cop-out and avoids facing down an issue that America is still struggling with.

I got Song as a bootleg DVD at a comic con earlier in the year and it came from an Asian DVD special edition as, and heres the irony, it has been released in Asia and many other regions, just not here. The extras are the history of Uncle Remus, an explanation of who he really may have been, and two radio programs that served as promos for the film. The film is of decent quality and has good but tinny sound. Its a bootleg, what do you want?

Song of the South is a movie that may truly be lost to the ages, a relic that is thought to be better left to the dust and as a footnote in Disney trivia, but I really believe the film deserves better than that. As troublesome as some aspects of the film are, I like the movie and think that, if taken as a movie, its pretty sweet. But it can also be taken as, and used as a means of opening discussions that few are usually brave enough to breech in public.


8 out of 10 Jackasses
blog comments powered by Disqus