Writer Jim Korkis, who began his career as a teenager interviewing legendary Disney animators, chronicles the history of this provocative classic in his newest book Who’s Afraid of the Song of the South? And Other Forbidden Disney Stories (available for Kindle as well). Korkis tells how Walt Disney struggled to make a motion picture he was passionate about, and he writes of the ensuing controversy, which has gone on for over 65 years.
In the book’s foreword, Disney Legend Floyd “Mr. Fun” Norman, the company’s first African-American animator and a fine storyteller in his own right, recalls showing Song of the South at a black church in Los Angeles in the ’80s:
The screening of the Disney film proved insightful. the completely African-American audience absolutely loved the movie and even requested a second screening.
Yet even today the film continues to be mired on controversy, and that’s a shame. I often remind people that the Disney movie is not a documentary on the American South.
Korkis’ book documents how Song of the South found itself mired in controversy from the start. Walt Disney long admired the folk wisdom and clever stories of Joel Chandler Harris’ tales, and he saw an adaptation of the Uncle Remus canon as an opportunity to right the studio’s ship after the financially difficult war years, as well as a chance to innovate by blending live action and animation.
In an era of Southern segregation and the already churning waters of race relations, Disney took pains to craft the film as carefully as he could. When a first draft by Louisiana writer Dalton Reymond proved so racist as to be beyond the pale, Walt turned to author Maurice Rapf, a communist-leaning (gasp!) Yankee (double gasp!) — who would later find himself blacklisted — to fix the script, and other writers helped whip an acceptable screenplay into shape. The filmmakers chose to set the film after the Civil War, though they were not always clear about the setting. For example, the screenplay presents a greater level of interaction between blacks and whites than during the antebellum era, and Uncle Remus threatens to leave the farmstead of his own accord, whereas he would have had to escape had he still been a slave.