While staying on his grandmother’s plantation, a lonely boy named Johnny (Bobby Driscoll) befriends an older slave named Uncle Remus (James Baskett), who tells him tall tales about Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear. Meanwhile, Johnny meets a poor white girl (Luana Patten), who — against her bullying brothers’ wishes — gives him a puppy. Trouble arises when Johnny’s mother (Ruth Warrick) refuses to allow him to keep the puppy, and — thinking Remus’s stories are giving Johnny fanciful notions — asks them not to spend time together.
Disney’s Song of the South (SotS) remains one of the most controversial films ever made, due to its depiction of slaves on a southern plantation as seemingly happy and content. In truth, however, SotS is one of the milder portrayals of African-Americans to come out of early Hollywood, and is certainly less offensive than, for instance, the slaves in Gone With the Wind, who are portrayed as either comic, ignorant, bossy, servile, lying, and/or lazy. While Uncle Remus is (on the surface) subservient to his mistress, he’s ultimately shown to be a savvy, independent man with an enormous heart. Most impressive of all, however, is SotS‘s depiction of interracial friendship as both acceptable and normal; Warrick’s complaints about who Johnny spends his time with have more to do with class than race — and the only reason she doesn’t want him listening to Uncle Remus’s stories is because she believes they’re giving him “fanciful notions”.
Critical opinion on SotS these days remains divisive, with Disney purportedly holding back on a DVD release due to fear of p.c. repercussions. It’s my belief, however, that parents ought to be allowed to make up their own minds about how (or whether) to show this film to their children: with an age-appropriate disclaimer about the film’s depiction of slaves (which, by the way, would be an excellent starting point for broader discussions on the topic, as well as a critical analysis of the Br’er Rabbit tales), kids will likely enjoy the film, and relate to Johnny’s travails.
As a narrative, SotS is ultimately too schmaltzy for its own good, but does feature some enjoyable animated sequences (which no Disney fan will want to miss), and a truly noteworthy performance by Baskett as Uncle Remus. It’s devastating to know that Baskett — despite winning an “honorary” Oscar — couldn’t attend the film’s premiere in Atlanta because no hotel would rent him a room; it appears that adults of the day were unable to take the film’s lessons about racial tolerance to heart.
P.S. Believe it or not, an entire website is devoted to news about the film. See link below.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- James Baskett as Uncle Remus
- Bobby Driscoll as Johnny
- Several amusing tales about crafty Br’er Rabbit
- Nifty integration of live action and animation
- Uncle Remus singing “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah”
- A refreshing tale of friendship transcending race, gender, class, and age