Song of the South

Song of the South: the Disney film you might never see again

Until a few days ago, I had no idea Disney banned its Song of the South film and has never released it on DVD, blu-ray or digital. The last time it was shown was in the year of its 40th anniversary, 1986. It was a huge hit and the studio’s first-ever live action and animation movie. I saw it at the cinema as a kid in the 1970s and loved it, though I only remember the character of Brer Rabbit and the song, Zip A Dee Doo Dah. I hum that track several times a year I’m sure, but have never to my memory discussed or even thought about the film as an adult. Before now. That’s why I’m both surprised at the revelation it’s racist for a few heartbeats, and then know I shouldn’t be surprised at all. Those beats are the time it takes for adult self and child self to align. It all went over my head as a very young child who just saw a film in which everyone was happy, end of.

I can recall two key times in my early life when I became aware of racism. The first time I didn’t have a name for it, but a black friend of mine, a little girl my age, was being bullied and called names in school that I can look back at now and know with certainty had been spoken in the kids’ homes. I just instinctively knew what I’d later understand as racism was wrong. We were five years old and I was already being bullied and labelled too – queer and poof mostly. Yes, at that age racism and homophobia can be imported into schools by children who overhear their parents talking. The second time was when racism was named and exploded into my full awareness by viewing the first TV adaptation of Roots. I was horrified by the stories of capture and beatings, discriminations and casual cruelty. Between these two times is when I would have seen Song of the South and I recall having two reactions: confusion at some point, and feeling a bit bored in the middle. I only recall reactions to two other films from childhood – Star Wars and Grease. So maybe Song of the South was more impactful than I once thought. I don’t know. 

I’m sure the Zip A Dee Doo Dah song has been buried along with the film. When it comes to the song, I’m sad about that. Its lyrics are not racist, and the joy of hearing it returns with each repeat listen. Zip A Dee Doo Dah used to be included in Disney Greatest Hits albums and I have one digitised from the 1980s, so I have a copy of the song and a clip of it is on YouTube. 

I’m not sure banning the film entirely is the best thing. The film was pioneering, not only in its live-action and animation mix but also because it featured a black lead at a time when black people had to sit at the back in the cinemas in the US. Facts like these shouldn’t be buried to be forgotten. Nobody should suggest Disney profit from the film, but just maybe it could be used in certain contexts to help fight the racism that informed its development and still exists.

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