Free Uncle Remus!

Mention “Song of the South” and many younger Americans will assume you’re talking about that Southern rock song by the group Alabama. But those of us who are a little longer in the tooth know better. “Song of the South” was a wonderful movie of our childhood, from the Walt Disney studios. It brought us Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, Br’er Bear, the Laughing Place, the Tar Baby — and Uncle Remus.

Released in 1946, the movie garnered a Best Song Oscar for the tune “Zippity-Doo-Da!”, and a very special Academy Award for the superb actor James Baskett who played Uncle Remus. It was the first Academy Award ever received by a male African American actor. The first black actress who had won an Academy Award,  for “Gone With the Wind,” Hattie McDaniel, was also featured in the movie as Aunt Tempy, a cook.

Uncle Remus and gang

Uncle Remus and gang

You may ask what the point of all this is. It’s that “Song of the South” has never been released on VHS or DVD in the U.S. by Disney. Why? Apparently because the Walt Disney Company is afraid the NAACP and other black organizations will throw a hissy if and when any such release is made, because professional grievance collectors over the years have branded certain aspects of the film “racist” and “demeaning to blacks.” I believe they’re dead wrong, and that Disney is showing spinelessness of the first order, but I wanted to view the film again to refresh my memory before writing about it. After all, the last time I saw the entire flick all the way through, I was just 6 years old.

Just because it’s never been released for home viewing in the U.S. (VHS versions have been available in Europe and Asia for years; go figure), doesn’t mean you can’t watch it if you want to search a little. I found it on YouTube. Just log onto that website, search for “Song of the South,” and you’ll find that some subversive has downloaded it — in 10 clips of about nine to 10 minutes each. A little tedious, but you can watch it all right.

The film, set in the South during Reconstruction (not “under slavery” as some of its critics have claimed) tells the story of Johnny, a 7-year-old white boy who goes to stay with his mother, Sally, at her wealthy parents’ plantation while his father, John, goes away on business. Johnny meets Uncle Remus, a retired black man who lives nearby in a cabin and who tells wonderful, fascinating stories about the animals of the area to young folks such as Johnny and the friend he makes there, Toby, a black boy about his age. Baskett’s performance as Uncle Remus is a true tour de force, as he not only voices his lines with warm conviction, but tells us much by his subtle body language as well. In fact, Baskett’s performance is so superlative that the only other player who comes close at all is McDaniel, portraying the take-no-nonsense cook who, it is hinted but never revealed for sure, may have romantic feelings for Uncle Remus.

Johnny, missing his father very much, gets into problems with the Favers brothers, Jake and Joe, poor white boys near his age, but becomes fast friends with their sister, Ginny. Ultimately, Sally asks Uncle Remus not to associate with her son anymore because she believes his stories are leading Johnny into misbehavior. Remus, heartbroken, leaves to go to Atlanta. Johnny, trying to run after him, receives a serious injury. In the climactic scene, Uncle Remus and Johnny’s father return at the same time, and all ends happily with Remus and the children dancing and singing down the road and over a hill.

James Baskett, the star of the film although he did not get top billing, was a Hoosier, born in Indianapolis. He was only 42 years old when the film was released in late 1946, but had managed to appear at least 20 years older as Uncle Remus. Sadly, he had only two more years to live. Walt Disney himself campaigned vigorously for Baskett to receive a special Academy Award for the part, and he did. Some of the same people who want the movie withheld from home viewing have insisted that Baskett wasn’t able to attend the award presentation in Atlanta (the film takes place in Georgia; the story is based on the writings of Joel Chandler Harris) because no hotel in town would rent a room to a black man. I believe that’s a crock of sewage, however. Was there not a single hotel in Atlanta owned by blacks? Would not a single black family have been honored to have the first black man to win an Academy Award as their house guest? More likely is that the heart disease that would kill him in 1948 was already weakening Baskett in 1947, making him unable to attend.

At a couple of points in the film, when Uncle Remus is feeling frustrated because his attempts to befriend and teach the young boys have had unintended consequences, he says to himself, “I’s just an old man who likes to tell stories; I’s never done nobody no harm.” In those words, one can see Remus as a black Walt Disney — an adult who still sees things with the wonder of a child, and can spin tales of forest animals with human characteristics that enthrall the real children in his world.

I don’t see where I or anyone else has an obligation to “defend” “Song of the South.” It can stand on its own. But for what it’s worth, here are some observations of mine about the film:

The whites in it are never verbally abusive to the blacks, nor do they “order them around.” Uncle Remus, while he is courteous to the white adults, conducts himself with dignity, as does Aunt Tempy. And the white people in the film treat them — especially Uncle Remus, who seems to be a revered elder in their community — with respect, too.

When the mean Favers boys (poor whites) gang up on Johnny, Uncle Remus steps in, stops them, and speaks sternly to them as any responsible adult would. Does the film show blacks content with their lot in the post-Civil War South (as the critics obviously believe they would not have been)? Well, to know that for sure you would have to be able to get inside their heads. But the criticism some of the grievance collectors have made about the black farm workers singing on their way to and from work is nonsensical. That’s one of the things black people did in the South: Sing. They did it under slavery, and they did it after slavery. Why in God’s name would that be a reason to criticize this movie? Sure, this film does not show a “slave revolt” or blacks in the Union Army killing white Confederate soldiers, as “trendy” historic movies of today are likely to do. But it was made in a different era. And how do we know that this wasn’t the way Reconstruction was in at least some areas of the South?

Want to judge the film for yourself? Go to YouTube and watch “Song of the South.” Agree that Disney should release it on DVD as soon as possible? Google “Song of the South petition.” It’s addressed to the Disney organization, and you can sign it, as 128,510 had by one week ago, the most recent count available. Disney officials said two years ago they were “re-considering” their previous decision to permanently retire “Song of the South” — but those are weasel words. They need a good, hard push, and the lure of good, hard currency they’ll get from DVD sales.

Sign the petition. Do your part. I have.

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