Simply the Worst: Disney's "Song of the South"

by robbiefreeling
September 24, 2011 1:51 AM
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Whether or not you’ve seen the 1946 Disney film Song of the South—and if you have, you probably haven’t seen it since at least 1986, the last time it was released to theaters—you’ve almost certainly been touched by it through some form of cultural osmosis. Perhaps, while at Disneyland, Disney World, or Tokyo Disneyland, you rode Splash Mountain, populated by the movie’s animated characters, Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear. Maybe you’ve seen a clip of James Baskett performing the movie’s Oscar-winning song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” Or if Baskett’s version is unfamiliar to you, you might have heard the Muppet bunnies sing it, or Paula Abdul, or Miley Cyrus. Or it’s possible you received a “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah Tip for the Day” during one of your trips to a Disney resort.

These redeployments are anecdotal evidence that Song of the South—which is, by almost any measure, alternately good, bad, and ugly—has had an undeniable cultural influence. Yet despite that, the movie is now available to the public thanks only to video transfers of dubious quality on YouTube. Disney has willingly commodified “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” and the movie’s animated characters, but it has buried the film that first brought them to the public’s attention. Br’er Rabbit and the other residents of Splash Mountain, along with Baskett’s altogether “satisfactual” number, are cultural orphans—references without a referent. This is because Disney executives seem to believe, for good reason, that Song of the South is unacceptably racist. Read Chris Wisniewski's entry in Reverse Shot's "Simply the Worst" symposium.

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  • Chris Wisniewski | September 26, 2011 5:15 AMReply

    Thanks for your note, Chauncy. I agree about Gone with the Wind and clearly call it out in my piece.

    And I also think I make it clear in the essay that Disney did not mean any harm, disrespect, or overt racism. However, I stand behind the arguments I made about the problems with the film's depiction of race (and the problems with its dramaturgy). We'll have to agree to disagree about this film being an unfairly maligned classic.

  • chauncy | September 26, 2011 1:53 AMReply

    I call bullshit. "Gone with the Wind" is far more racist than "Song of the South", yet I rarely read or hear movie critics point to that as the film's main theme, and "Gone with the Wind" is available on DVD at least.

    And poor James Baskett! His most significant role now lies buried in a Disney vault, never to see the light of day. Does he deserve that? Do you think he'd approve?

    I say Disney should release "Song of the South" on DVD and add a disclaimer to it which would help put the film and its portrayals in cultural context. Disney meant no harm, no disrespect, no overt racism. To imply otherwise maligns the innocent and tarnishes a Disney classic.