Even as a child growing up watching Walt Disney’s “Song of the South” I recognized actor, James Baskett performing the voice of Brer Fox. The voice actors in the Disney film included, Johnny Lee performing Brer Rabbit, along with Nick Stewart doing the voice of the slow-witted Brer Bear. James Baskett handled the fox during the cartoon sequences, but the talented actor could switch gears in a heartbeat. Baskett could perform the bear when needed and he also did Brer Rabbit when actor Johnny Lee had to be away on war time assignments. Remember, this was the forties and World War II still raged on in Europe and the Pacific. Though the film opened to a degree of controversy, the talented actor received a special Academy Award for his portrayal of Uncle Remus, the fanciful but wise storyteller in the classic 1948 Walt Disney movie.
Today, Walt Disney’s “Song of the South continues to be a hot potato and even the Disney Company is reluctant to embrace the film. The charming tale of a wise old man using fanciful stores to help a young boy deal with personal issues. While the film may seem too melodramatic for some, the movie is enriched by inspired animation sequences that propel the story forward. Not only does each animated sequence deliver an important message for the troubled young Johnny, the animation showcases the Disney cartoon masters working at the top of their game. When I arrived at the Walt Disney Studios in the fifties, the top animators regarded their work in “Song of the South” as some of their finest. The cartoon segments are stellar and clearly Disney storytelling at its best. It is with deep regret the film remains mired in accusations of racism and insensitivity to African Americans. Those who know their Disney history know this is exactly what Walt Disney hoped to avoid.
While we patiently wait for attitudes to change, we’ll have to enjoy the Walt Disney classic motion picture on foreign DVDs and boot legged digital copies. However, I remain optimistic that we’ll one day gain a maturity regarding race and ethnicity in our media. We’ll get pass outmoded perceptions and recognize we’re all pretty much the same. Walt Disney had no racial agenda in his 1948 motion picture. The master storyteller was simply eager to dig deep into America’s rich and unique heritage. The stories thankfully preserved by Joel Chandler Harris are part of our American heritage even though a part of it deals with a period in our history we would rather forget. However, forgetting history is never a good idea. Walt Disney understood that… and so should the rest of us.