On November 12, 1946, Disney movie Song of the South premiered at Fox Theater in Atlanta. The film features Uncle Remus, an African American former slave, recounting the misadventures of Br’er Rabbit and his friends to a group of children. The film has been controversial since its release because of its depiction of race relations. Because of this, it has never been released in its entirety on home video in the United States.
The Disney company was suffering after disappointing box office returns from Pinocchio and Fantasia (both released in 1940), so Walt Disney began to brainstorm something that would be technically innovative and inexpensive to make. In 1939, Disney had negotiated the rights to the plantation-set Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris. The film revolves around Johnny, a young white boy, who moves to his grandparents’ plantation after his parents split up and becomes enthralled by the fables told by Uncle Remus, an African-American servant who also lives on the plantation. His fables follow the adventures of Br’er Rabbit who constantly outwits Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear.
At the movie’s premiere in Atlanta, Walt Disney introduced the film and the cast, but retreated to his hotel room across the street because he did not want to hear any unexpected reactions from the audience. It is rumored that James Baskett, who played Uncle Remus, did not attend the premiere because Atlanta was still racially segregated at this point.
Although the movie made a small profit in the box offices, it has become revered as the black sheep of the Disney family of movies for its handling of race and the critical response it received after its release. Many critics praised it for being artistically beautiful for combining animation with live action, but thought the depiction of African American plantation life was cliched, offensive, and Uncle Tomish. The New York Times‘ Bosley Crowther wrote that the movie was a “travesty on the antebellum South.”
Despite its critical response, the film received an Academy Award from the wildly popular song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” and the story’s characters still live on in the Disney theme park ride Splash Mountain which features Br’er Rabbit and company as well as music from the film.
Petitions and fan sites have been created supporting the re-release of Song of the South, but Disney representatives have stated on several occasions that the movie is antiquated and fairly offensive so this is not likely. Clips from the movie have been released on Disney compilations, but the full movie has never been released on video in the United States. Out-of-print international versions of the movie have sold online for as much as $100.