Let Uncle Remus Go

From the time I was a kid my favorite movies were the Disney films. Movies like Pinocchio, Dumbo, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Peter Pan, and Song of the South were among my favorites. As I sat there in the dark of the theater I imagined myself soaring through the skies high above London with Peter Pan, cuddling with my mother like Dumbo did with his, or sitting at the knee of Uncle Remus as I listened to his wonderful stories of Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox.

At some point I made up my mind that I wanted to work for the Walt Disney Studios. I wanted to be part of the team who made the movies which made me feel so good, that made me laugh, cry, and want to sing. I finally got my wish and was hired by the studio in 1970. I spent the next 27 years contributing to the Disney culture of great family entertainment, first as a cartoonist, then as a writer, and finally as a creative executive.

There were no politics or messages, just pure joy in the entertainment we created. We made stuff that (we hoped) people would find funny, heartwarming, and uplifting. Characters with personality and stories with heart – that was the Disney formula. Those characters and stories, many of which were created decades ago, still live and talk to the kids of today, just as they talked to me when I was a kid. Kids still dance with Snow White and fly with Peter Pan, but sadly today’s kids don’t have a clue who Uncle Remus was.

Song of the South has been kept out of the U.S. public arena for around 25 years, a decision made by the Disney Company because of complaints that the movie was racist. What a shame that one of Walt Disney’s greatest achievements has been locked away from public view. Back around 1986 civil rights groups demanded that the film be taken out of distribution and not shown anymore. The company complied and has kept it out of circulation ever since.

Granted, Song of the South, was made in 1946, when attitudes concerning racial stereotypes were much different than they are now. But the same can be said of Gone with the Wind, and dozens and dozens of other pictures which depict blacks, Asian-Americans, and American Indians in ways that we would never do in movies now –and yet those movies are shown all the time while Song of the South has disappeared.

Let’s set the record straight about the picture. This movie is not racist. The black characters in Song of the South are all treated with respect. They are never treated badly, nor are they spoken to badly. There are no slave characters in the film. The movie is set after the Civil War. The blacks at Miss Doshy’s plantation are working employees, not slaves.

The film is set during the Jim Crow era, and the general quality of life (in terms of housing and education in particular) of black Americans shown was not much better than that of pre Civil War slaves, but that’s a part of real history. That’s the way it was. To depict it otherwise is to deny the truth of what our country was back then. Furthermore, compared to a lot of black portrayals we see now on TV and movies, the black portrayals in Song of the South are absolutely dignified and stately.

The Uncle Remus character is not ignorant. He is a warm, lovable, sensitive man. As a matter of fact, he possesses more intelligence, compassion and common sense than anyone else in the picture, including the white characters. When I watched this movie as a kid in the fifties I absolutely adored Uncle Remus. I wanted to spend time with him, listen to his stories, be his friend.

And speaking of Uncle Remus, it is a travesty that the actor who so brilliantly portrayed him has now been completely forgotten. Most Americans under the age of 35 have never been able to see the marvelous performance of James Baskett as the loveable storyteller Uncle Remus, the role of his lifetime. Baskett won an honorary Oscar for his fine work in this film, the first black man to win an Academy Award. I can still see and hear him singing “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” with that animated bluebird on his shoulder. Wonderful stuff! By the way, that song won an Oscar, too.

And as long as this picture remains banned, people will never see the wonderful Disney technical artistry on display in “Song of the South” that perfectly blends live action with animation. The special effects were “state of the art” for its time, and still look spectacular even by contemporary CGI standards.

The cartoon sequences are among the most hilarious ever produced by the studio, including Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear – wonderful characters told in stories by Uncle Remus which delivered important life lessons and Aesop Fable-like morals, along with a truck load of belly laughs.

I wish I could convince the Disney powers-that-be to reconsider re-releasing this classic Disney movie. Walt Disney’s Song of the South deserves to be seen and enjoyed by all.

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