A Second Look: Song of the South
In 1946, Walt Disney released Song of the South, based on the Uncle Remus stories collected by Joel Chandler Harris. Starring James Baskett, Bobby Driscoll, Launa Patten, Glenn Leedy, Ruth Warrick, Lucile Watson, Hattie McDaniel, Johnny Lee and Nick Stewart, the film grossed $65 million at the box office. Nominated for an Academy Award for Scoring of a Musical Picture, the film won the award for Best Son g and Baskett was given a special Academy Award for his characterization of Uncle Remus.
Set in the Deep South after the Civil War, young Johnny discovers that he’ll be living with his mother and grandmother at the latter’s plantation while his father returns to Atlanta to continue his controversial work as an editor for the city’s newspaper. But when Johnny tries to sneak away, he runs into Uncle Remus who tells him about Br’er Rabbit, which changes his mind about leaving.
Though it’s not a perfect film, Song of the South is quite decent. What's really interesting about the film is how it received so much controversy around the treatment of its African American characters. On one hand, there’s the thought that the film was actually pretty fair for its day as it portrays the African American folktales in a positive light as morality tales, while at the same time giving such prominence to an African American actor who eventually became the first African American man to get an Oscar for anything. However, on the other hand, there’s the argument that it offensively puts rose-colored glasses on history by portraying joyous African Americans living in the Old South, even reaching so far that the NAACP said it perpetuated a glorified picture of slavery. Yet, the controversy may actually be misguided as it is set in Reconstruction Era South instead of Antebellum South and the African American characters are sharecroppers and not slaves.
That being said, both of the film’s mediums have some interesting characters and characterizations, namely in the similarities between Johnny and Br’er Rabbit. The former, being a little kid who makes rash decisions, doesn’t always think through what he does and so believes leaving the plantation on impulse, with nothing but a bindle, and heading to Atlanta to be with his father again is a good idea. He also takes the wrong lesson from one of the stories. Compare this to Br’er Rabbit who never really thinks anything through, which often lands him in trouble. However, unlike Johnny, Br’er Rabbit doesn’t have an Uncle Remus to get him out of trouble and has to use his wits. The aforementioned example of where Johnny takes the wrong lesson is when Br’er Rabbit learns that he shouldn’t mess around with things he doesn’t have any business in, but Johnny learns that he should use reverse psychology on those harassing him. However, there might be a justification where Johnny’s rashness and impulsiveness lie as his mother is completely useless. She’s so intent on making sure he feels better and wants to raise him right according to her standards that she doesn’t listen to any advice or explanations, which constantly makes things worse for him.
On the other end of the spectrum, Uncle Remus is the exact opposite of a useless adult, telling stories to try and get through Johnny’s head. And what’s interesting is that these stories essentially save Johnny after his run in with the bull. Remus is also the only character in the movie to be without any sort of character flaw; he’s always cordial, nice to the kids and always knows the right thing to say. The only reason he gets on Johnny’s mother’s bad side is that he tries to give her some advice, but her uselessness prevents her from seeing why the advice he gives actually may be good.
The characters of Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear deserve mention as they’re the antagonists to Br’er Rabbit. The former is the brains and the smart one of the two, or at least smart enough to not believe anything Br’er Rabbit says, but his undoing comes from the latter, who is a living plot device meant to derail Br’er Fox’s plans. They’re actually a pretty good comedic duo.
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