Welcome to 50 first times. For those who came in late, I’m working my way through 50 previously unseen movies, watching good films, bad films, forgotten classics, Oscar winners and everything in between.

The rules are as follows:

  • The film I watch has to be something new (for me)
  • The film can be from any decade/genre

Today I’m watching…

Song of the South (1946)

Much to discuss today, but where to begin?

OK, first up I must note that I have previously watched some (but not all) of Song of the South. So today’s movie choice isn’t completely new to me.

I watched some of the film when I was younger, and I am familiar with the basic outline of the movie. I am also aware of the issues surrounding the film (which I’ll discuss in a moment).

So, why did I choose this film as part of 50 first times? I chose Song of the South because I wanted to revisit the movie to finally see it from start to finish.

To get a real understanding of the movie, and the issues that surround it, I need to see it in full. Watching the film as part of 50 first times seemed like the best way to do this, otherwise I doubt I would ever get around to revisiting it.

Now ordinarily on 50 first times, after a little preamble regarding my knowledge of the film, I would ‘press play’ and begin a running commentary to explain my thoughts/observations. But I’m not doing this with Song of the South; instead I am going to talk about the movie post-screening.

Yep, I’ve already watched it. I watched it late last night, just before going to bed.

I opted not to blog/pass comment as I screened the film, because I wanted to take in the whole picture, then give some consideration about what I had viewed. But it’s now 24 hours on and I feel I can give my opinion.

Now I appreciate that some people may not know what Song of the South is. After all, this is a movie which dates back to the 1940s, and is not in regular rotation.

So, for those unfamiliar with the film, Song of the South is a live-action Disney movie set in post-civil war America. Although the movie is predominantly live-action, it does feature some animated sequences, including scenes where cartoon characters appear on screen in live-action shots.

If you’ve not seen or have never even heard of Song of the South it’s actually not that surprising. Song of the South has never been made available on DVD, Blu-ray or digital in the US or the UK, never appears on television, and it is not currently included in the extensive catalogue of classic titles on Disney+.

So, what gives? Why isn’t Song of the South available on home video/streaming?

Song of the South isn’t available to watch on home video/streaming because the content of the movie is deemed racially insensitive and offensive. The film features outdated stereotypes and depicts African Americans as subservient.

The movie presents an incorrect idyllic recreation of the past, which seemingly smooths over the subject of slavery. It effectively ignores a dark era of US history in favour of telling a light-hearted story and in doing so it marginalises the pain that many people endured.

It also tells audiences, who have little to no knowledge of the past, that this is what life was like and this is wrong. And while Song of the South has elements of fantasy, which make it clear it isn’t real, romanticising this era of American history provides an inaccurate snapshot of the past.

Image: ©Walt Disney

____

Is Song of the South a bad movie?

Now one of the main features of 50 first times, is my view of the movie – do I think it’s good/bad? As is clear from above, my take on Song of the South is that first and foremost it is a very problematic film.

Because such a large part of the movie depicts African American people as perfectly happy working and living on a plantation in the south (shortly after slavery was abolished), it is difficult to see anything other than a bad movie. The depiction of African Americans shapes far too much of the story, and it means the whole film is riddled with problems.

I’m aware that a number of Disney movies contain content with racial connotations (Dumbo, Peter Pan, Aristocats, etc), but the issues associated with these films are not so deeply entrenched in each picture as they are in Song of the South (not that this is an excuse). But from start to finish, the entire movie is formed around misrepresentation and it’s impossible to ignore them.

Based on this issue alone, I did not enjoy watching Song of the South. I also do not think it is a good film. 

From purely an entertainment standpoint (after all, films are designed to entertain), Song of the South is slow. With the exception of the musical number, Zip-Dee-Doo-Dah (a song which has lived on beyond the movie), Song of the South is a very boring film.

The narrative is incredibly underwhelming, with large chunks focusing on a boy and his puppy (a puppy that looks bored), and even the animated sequences do little to crank up the excitement level. The only mildly interesting part of the film comes towards the end of the movie when the lead character, a young boy called Johnny, is trampled by a bull!

It’s fine – he lives.

If I was asked to list the best Disney movies, then Song of the South would simply not appear on the list. I did not find anything particularly redeeming about the movie.

But watching this film got me thinking about a wider issue – about whether or not Song of the South should be kept hidden. Disney doesn’t push this film on home video or through streaming, and the Mouse House kind of pretends it doesn’t exist.

Should it?

There are many films from the 1940s which have lived on to the present day. But there are also many movies which have simply fallen by the wayside over the years, either because they have been lost to time or simply because audiences don’t have a desire to watch them anymore. Song of the South has managed to still remain in the public consciousness, so should Disney take more ownership of it? And how?

____

The disclaimer

During the early ‘00s, Warner Bros. added disclaimers to the home video releases of some of its Looney Tunes titles – titles that contained racist material. Rather than sidestep the racial problems in the shorts, the studio addressed them head on, to highlight issues with its back catalogue.

Disney have recently done something similar, by adding disclaimers to problematic movies such as Dumbo, which have recently been added to Disney+. This is a way for Disney to keep the films alive, while acknowledging that elements of their production is wrong.

But Disney has not employed this technique with Song of the South, and I’m not sure it ever will. Disney could place a disclaimer in front of the movie, but is the disclaimer enough of a reason to put the film back into the public sphere? And does Disney want to keep having a discussion about this movie?

There is a strong argument to say that ignoring the past means we are doomed to repeat it. This is an argument I subscribe to, and I don’t believe we should ban material if views and content have moved on.

People need to learn from the past, so Disney should be more vocal about Song of the South, in order to teach the next generation about missteps in history. But by the same token, I’m not sure everything from the past needs to be brought back as a form of entertainment. 

Disney doesn’t have to ignore Song of the South, but it also doesn’t need to put it out on DVD where it will sit on a supermarket shelf alongside Frozen and The Little Mermaid. The studio should forever acknowledge Song of the South’s existence, by finding the right way to talk about it (perhaps as a teaching aid).

So yes, Disney should talk about it, but it must be in the right way. Finding the balance is key here, and that requires much thought.

I’m glad I have watched Song of the South in it’s entirety, but I’ll be honest, this was the first and last time for me. This film provided me with much to think about, but nothing that I feel I need to revisit.

If you want to check out my posts on other previously unseen films then dive into Trilogy of Terror (1975)Rob Zombie’s 31 (2016)Chef (2014)High Noon (1952)Xanadu (1980)When A Stranger Calls (1979),  The Sitter (1977)A Night at the Roxbury (1998)The Dark Crystal (1982)Starchaser: The Legend of Orin (1985),  Super (2010)When Harry Met Sally (1989)What We Do in the Shadows (2014)Shin Godzilla (2016), and Road House (1989).

Read: Part 17