On November 12, 1946, a packed crowd gathered in Atlanta for the premier of one of that year's much anticipated films. Disney Studio had pulled out all promo stops to make sure that the cash registers jingled for the opening of Song of the South. The film was its first real live action film. It conjured up the old racially soothing images of cotton specked fields, white columned plantation mansions, mint juleps, and happy-go-lucky, banjo strumming, and singing blacks. At the center of this falsified, but nostalgic, celluloid view of the Old plantation South was Uncle Remus. Veteran black actor James Baskett played Remus. He was always kindly, benevolent, and enthralled young whites with an endless storehouse of racially skewed black folktales. Unfortunately, Baskett didn't get to revel in his own tour de force performance at the opening night gala.
No hotel within proximity to the theater would rent him a room. Uncle Remus nee Basket may have been a beloved, cherished figure in Disney's mock plantation South film, but in the real world of then rigidly Jim Crow Atlanta, Baskett was anything but beloved. Song of the South went on to score big at the box office. Down through the years it spawned a genre of popular kid songs that generations of school children (including this writer) hummed and whistled, and delighted in the antics of folk icons Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Bear. GOP presidential contenders Mitt Romney and John McCain took much heat when they innocently used the term tar baby to describe troubled situations. Both sweated through profuse apologies and vowed that they had no racial intent in using the term. Tar baby was one of Uncle Remus's wildly popular tales in the movie. It has been roundly denounced as a derogatory term for blacks.
Despite the vile and offensive stereotypes, and phony racial image of the South, tens of thousands of Song of the South buffs pounded Disney last year in a website, an online petition, and letters to re-release the film on home video and DVD. Disney executives begged off, explaining that without the proper context a release could be misinterpreted. That was a polite way of saying that there is no way that such a racially anachronistic film loaded with racially demeaning images and characters can be peddled without telling how and why the images and message are racially insulting today. In those days though the stereotypes were considered tame and acceptable. The Disney announcement drew mild applause from those that object to the offensive racial stereotypes. But hold the cheers.
Song of the South has never stopped making money for Disney. It's been a popular sale item on video and laserdisc in Britain, Hong Kong, Spain, France, Germany, as well as Italy where the title is translated as "The Stories of Uncle Tom." The British even re-released Song in 2000. Out of print international copies of the film reportedly command upwards of $100 at on line sales. In the United States Song of the South never had a swan song. It is readily available for sale on book and record sets.
There would be no objection to the continued commercial pump of Song of the South if the clamor for it was merely collector's nostalgia, scholarly interest in black folktales, or to use the film as a learning tool to warn students of the social and psychic damage racial stereotypes have wreaked. But Disney executives almost certainly know that the copies of Song of the South that are sold contain not a whisper of the "appropriate context" they claim the studio is concerned should be in the film before re-releasing it. The dangle of even bigger dollars from official video sales may ultimately prove too tempting for Disney to pass up, with or without the appropriate context.
In a statement in March Disney President and CEO Bob Iger dropped a strong hint that re-release may well be in the cards in the near future. Iger's statement was a trial balloon to see what if any public reaction there is to that prospect. So far there's been virtually none. The NAACP and other civil rights groups have taken no position on it. That's a good sign for Disney. The protest if any, they're banking would be scattered, weak, and short-lived. If that's the case, then there'll be no need to provide the appropriate context for the film. It would be just a straight dollar and cents business deal.
In the coming months, the thousands that hunger for and still delight in the Old South imagery of blacks singing, dancing, telling homespun tales, and who are eternally differential to whites will continue to prod Disney to get the film back on the video market shelves. Disney's waffling on whether to release or not shows they are listening, and listening closely. Racial stereotypes have always been one of America's most timeless and lucrative commodities. Ask Don Imus. Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah anyone?
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.