As Atlanta continues its claim to being the more cosmopolitan capital of the South and a growing hub for film, television, and video game production, the rest of Georgia has trouble letting go of much of its offending institutions. Stone Mountain reigns as the largest monument to the Confederacy. The rebel flag waves from homes and pickup trucks all over the state. The “tomahawk chop” performed by fans during Atlanta Braves games is just now being heavily reconsidered. And Disney’s Song of the South is widely available on DVD.
The first time I saw one of these unauthorized copies was during a street fair in 2012, my first year as a Georgia resident. The event was primarily devoted to booksellers and was being held in what’s considered to be one of the more liberal suburbs of Atlanta. I was surprised such contraband was just out in the open, but I came to learn that these bootleg DVDs are anything but a behind-the-counter item that has to be asked around for. Bookstores and other shops in Georgia have the film prominently displayed on shelves. Some businesses highlight the item on their website.
Song of the South is in the public eye lately thanks to Disney’s new streaming service, Disney+. No, the film won’t be coming out of the studio’s vault along with hundreds of other long lost titles. But the immediate question of its inclusion by Disney fans and entertainment reporters has built up curiosity once again. What’s so bad about the 1946 feature, which mixes live-action and animation for stories based on the “Uncle Remus” folktales compiled and appropriated by journalist Joel Chandler Harris in the late 19th century?
The thing is, you don’t need Disney+ to watch the film. Not only are there the bootleg DVDs, which are packaged so professionally, inside and out, complete with bonus features, that they look legitimate save for their lack of a Disney logo, but Song of the South is also easily streamed online thanks to the Internet Archive, that non-profit hosting platform best known for archiving the web and sharing mostly public domain content. Technically, the film won’t be in the public domain under US law for another 20 years, so it’s surprising that Disney hasn’t made an effort to take that video down.
Or go after the production and sales of bootlegs. Even beyond the copyright claim on the material, if the company really wanted to keep Song of the South hidden, they could be making a stronger effort to do so, even if there are parts of the world where they no longer have a legal hold on the film (it’s in the public domain in Japan, for instance). Perhaps as long as they’re not profiting, they believe they’ve done their part and relieved their guilt regarding the issue. Of course, that’s not entirely true since they still make money at theme parks featuring an attraction and merchandise based on the film’s story and characters.
That irony and more are covered in the new season of the podcast You Must Remember This, which is “dedicated to exploring the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century.” Song of the South is hardly a secret but a lot of its story is forgotten. And because few people have watched the movie recently, if at all, the reasons for its relative obscurity are also little known. For a long time, and it’s still widely accepted as the primary factor, the notorious “Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby” animated sequence was deemed racist. For decades, Disney broadcast a version of the film excluding just that section.
Karina Longworth, host of You Must Remember This, is devoting six episodes to the story. The series, titled Six Degrees of Song of the South, kicked off this week with an episode called “Disney’s Most Controversial Film,” and in addition to going through the history of how and why it was made and how and why it’s become a sore spot for the studio, Longworth digs into its problems with direct but sometimes elastic analysis of the plot, characters, themes, and context of its tale of an old African-American man sharing fables with a little white boy on a plantation in Reconstruction-era Georgia. There’s much more there than just the obvious optics of the tar baby.
I’ve seen Song of the South before. At least once theatrically, probably at age 9 during the 1986 re-release. And I’ve seen bits of the DVD bootleg circulating around my state (and other parts of the South apparently). I know someone who recently bought a copy from a general store in rural Georgia (the man behind the counter approvingly stated, “Gotta have Song of the South!” while ringing up the purchase). I looked at it see the quality, as the cover claims it’s digitally remastered (they’re sourced from a Hong Kong laserdisc), but the picture is still pretty muddy.
Lately, thanks to discussions about its exclusion from Disney+ and it being the topic of the new season of You Must Remember This, I’ve been curious to watch Song of the South in full again for the first time in decades. Purely for historical purposes, not unlike the screenings of Triumph of the Will and The Birth of a Nation we had to sit through in film school. After listening to the first part of Six Degrees of Song of the South, however, I’m good. Longworth is off to a great start in explaining both principally and precisely why the film deserves to be locked away and was never, despite Disney CEO Bob Iger‘s implication that it was at least once of its time.
Completely by coincidence, I was recently browsing Starz and happened to discover an alternative for anyone curious about the Uncle Remus stories rather than Disney’s adaptation. The Adventures of Brer Rabbit is a 2006 straight-to-video effort produced by Disney veteran Tad Stone, directed by African-American animator Byron Vaughns, and starring the vocal talents of an all-Black cast, including Nick Cannon, Wanda Sykes, Danny Glover, Wayne Brady, D.L. Hughley, and Dawnn Lewis. It’s Saturday Morning Cartoon style animation so nothing special, but after listening to Longworth’s explanation of Harrris’ “Uncle Remus” project, I find it interesting that a primarily Black production has reappropriated the telling of these stories.
As for Disney’s version, there’s room for debate on how they’ve handled the legacy of Song of the South. Anything held from people is going to increase some demand. I don’t actually see too much of that demand outside of what the media itself might provoke by constantly bringing up the film and its controversy. And besides the demand due to curiosity, we tend to get the regular defenses claiming the film isn’t as bad as you expect. Mostly because it’s not thought about as deeply as Longworth is giving it with her podcast. Her series is a reminder that ignorance is not necessarily innocence. We should learn about it so we know we shouldn’t want it.