On This Day: Nov. 20, 1946
Once upon a time, Walt Disney kept its valuable animated wares safe and secure in the Disney Vault, allowing the studio to build consumer demand for classic cartoons like Fantasia, Cinderella and The Little Mermaid by keeping them out of circulation for years — and sometimes even decades. The dawn of the streaming age paved the way for a big jailbreak; almost all of the once-vaulted titles are now available on Disney+ as well as VOD platforms like Prime Video and Vudu.
But there's one movie that the Mouse House is still keeping locked away... potentially forever. Released in theaters 77 years ago on Nov. 20, Song of the South was the still-young studio's sixth non-anthology feature film after 1937's pioneering Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. It was also a passion project for Walt Disney himself, who spent years developing a movie based on the character of Uncle Remus — the Aesop-like Black narrator of 19th century children's stories popularized by white author, Joel Chandler Harris.
A vintage poster for Disney's Song of the South. (Courtesy Everett Collection) (Courtesy Everett Collection)
Originally filmed in 1944, Song of the South took two years to reach theaters due to its complex mixture of live-action footage with fully animated sequences. Set in Reconstruction-era Georgia, the coming-of-age story follows a young white child named Johnny (Bobby Driscoll) who is upset to learn that his father will remain in Atlanta, while he and his mother move to his grandmother's plantation.
Enter Uncle Remus (James Baskett), who shares lesson-laced stories with Johnny and his new friend, Toby (Glen Leedy), about lupine trickster, Br'er Rabbit. Those stories take the form cartoon segments that find Br'er Rabbit (voiced by Johnny Lee) evading capture by Br'er Fox (also voiced by Baskett) and Br'er Bear (Nick Stewart). The film also featured the soon-to-be hit tune (and eventual Oscar-winning Best Original Song) "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah."
Disney's likely intention with Song of the South was to create another timeless tale along the lines of Snow White or Pinocchio. But the end result is a time capsule of Black stereotypes and caricatures that were already out of date when the film premiered in Atlanta on Nov. 12, 1946 followed by its wide release eight days later. In his 2012 book, Who's Afraid of Song of the South?, author Jim Korkis revealed that the film's novice screenwriter, Dalton S. Reymond, delivered a draft so filled with negative stereotypes, it led Black author and consultant Clarence Muse to quit the project. (Another writer, Maurice Rapf, was brought aboard to further temper the script, but he also resigned.)
According to Korkis, Disney moved forward with Song of the South over the advice of his own publicity department and legal team, which saw controversy ahead. The animator also ignored requests from both the NAACP and the American Council on Race Relations to review a treatment for the film during production. Additionally, the NAACP wasn't invited to the film's Atlanta premiere — an indignity shared by Baskett and his fellow Black cast members, including Academy Award-winning Gone With the Wind star Hattie McDaniel — as the city's movie theaters were segregated.
Toby (Glen Leedy), Uncle Remus (James Baskett) and Johnny (Bobby Driscoll) in Song of the South. (Courtesy Everett Collection) (Courtesy Everett Collection)
Instead, NAACP representatives saw Song of the South for the first time on Nov. 20, and observed that the movie featured "all the clichés in the book," from overstated Southern dialects to Uncle Remus's exceedingly deferential interactions with Johnny's parents. Picket lines protesting Song of the South started forming as early as December, and culminating in a demonstration in Oakland the following April that drew both Black and white protestors.
The general critical and commercial reaction proved mixed as well. "Through no fault of their own the performers in the predominant 'live action' phase must behave like characters in a travesty on the antebellum South," wrote New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther. And while Song of the South out-earned previous Disney disappointments like Pinocchio, it was far from a Snow White-level financial home run.
One of the movie's most vocal defenders turned out to be Uncle Remus himself. "I believe that certain groups are doing my race more harm in seeking to create dissension than can ever possibly come out of the Song of the South," Baskett told The Criterion in 1947. The actor died in July 1948, four months after accepting an honorary Oscar for his performance.
What Happened Next
Br'er Rabbit (voiced by Johnny Lee) in a scene from Song of the South. (Courtesy Everett Collection) (Courtesy Everett Collection)
Even as controversy clung to Song of the South, it took Disney decades to fully reckon with its legacy. The movie was re-released in theaters multiple times, most recently on its 40th anniversary in 1986. Storybooks and audio versions of the Br'er Rabbit segments were widely available, and the characters were also prominently featured as part of the Splash Mountain ride that opened at Disneyland and Disney World in the '80s and '90s.
At the same time, the studio notably avoided giving Song of the South a home video release, even as VHS and, later, DVD sales became a lucrative market. (Bootleg versions have circulated over the years.) And Disney has studiously avoided re-releasing the film theatrically since 1986. That choice upset some of the founder's descendants including Walt Disney's nephew, Roy E. Disney, who called Song of the South "a wonderful film," adding: "All it needs is context. Some of that animation is stunning even by today's standards." (Roy E. Disney died in 2009.)
Other prominent voices have also called for the film to be made more widely available. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment at D23 Expo in 2017, Whoopi Goldberg said she hoped to use her new status as a Disney Legend to encourage the studio to re-release Song of the South in some fashion. "I’m trying to find a way to get people to start having conservations about bringing Song of the South back," the Sister Act star remarked. "So we can talk about what it was and where it came from and why it came out."
But others have cautioned that context alone isn't enough to make Song of the South a movie in need of revisiting. "The imagery is just really, really abysmal," Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences and professor of sociology and African-American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Yahoo Entertainment in 2020, after George Floyd's death in Minneapolis police custody shone a renewed spotlight on depictions of race in media. "Absent a plan to make it available in ways that guarantee that it will be properly contextualized, probably the right thing to do is just to put it away for a while."
Where We Are Now
Until recently, Br'er Rabbit was featured in the Splash Mountain ride at Disneyland and Disney World. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images) (MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images via Getty Images)
Keeping Song of the South out of the public eye certainly seems to be the plan for current Disney head Bob Iger, who has called the film "fairly offensive" and repeatedly made it clear that the studio has no plans to ever release the movie on Disney+ or physical media. Br'er Rabbit's image has been scrubbed from Disneyland and Disney World as well. Splash Mountain closed at both parks in January, and will re-open in 2024 as a Princess and the Frog-themed attraction. Meanwhile, "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" was removed from the soundtrack of the Disney parks' daily parades.
In a recent interview with Yahoo Entertainment, Disney Imagineer Jeanette Lomboy addressed Splash Mountain's makeover, which had followed a Change.org petition to erase the "problematic and stereotypical racist tropes" featured in Song of the South.
"We're the torchbearers of the guest experience and we take things every seriously anytime we make a change," Lomboy noted. "Whenever we make a change, we do it because we're committed to what Walt [Disney] said about Disneyland being a living, breathing thing that changes and brings things back even better than they were before."
While the NAACP criticized Song of the South at the time of its release, today the organization holds no official position on when and how the movie should be viewed. "It’s always a balancing act,” says Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP told Yahoo Entertainment in 2020. "It’s the balance between the historical context and understanding how people were viewed, balanced against how the content being viewed would reinforce negative and/or racist stereotypes of the community, and how those stereotypes will play out to impact one’s quality of life. And that’s a balancing act that must be answered sometimes case by case. And sometimes there’s a clear response to it. It all depends on the content."