tales of Brer Rabbit, as spun by Uncle Remus
(one viewer's opinion)
by Armand A. Gagnon
Walt Disney's Song of the South (1946) has become a persecuted flick, mainly because it has been banned in the United States from public viewing since 1986, and Walt Disney Productions has no intention of re-releasing the movie in the foreseeable future. At present, it has been available on laser disc in Japan, complete and uncut in its entirety of 94 minutes with subtitles in the kanji and hiragana alphabets, yet the subtitles are displayed only during the singing of songs. In Great Britain, a somewhat shorter version of 91 minutes has been available with it being pre-empted by 11 minutes of Disney advertisements of Mary Poppins, Dumbo, and the like. Some scenes that were left on the cutting room floor include Johnny's prolonged crying spell as his father departs the plantation, the animated turtle 'Brer Terrapin' (the close-up) racing after Uncle Remus toward the end of the movie, and other odd tidbits that were left out here and there. Just why the cinéma-going public of Great Britain has been cheated out of these 3 to 4 minutes I cannot fathom. Whether this U.S.A. banning of Song of the South is due to the idea that Uncle Remus, Aunt Tempy, Toby, Ned, and other slaves on the plantation in the movie are portrayed as being complacent, locked into an idyllic, leisurely master-slave relationship, or whether they appear simply "happy in their plight", I am not too certain. Possibly, Brer Rabbit's constantly being captured by the sly, cunning, and conniving Brer Fox and bumbling Brer Bear symbolizes the black person's perpetual flight to freedom during Civil War times. Maybe this, too, has offended a viewing public of African heritage, although I would never know that, for I am of white, Anglo-European, Franco-American descent. American slavery and human bondage are not in my immediate ethnic family history. Perhaps the slaves on Tara plantation in Gone With the Wind (1939) were portrayed with more historical realism, albeit it exudes Hollywood's way of carrying poetic and cinematic license to "stretch itself beyond the limits". But one thing is for certain: An animated cartoon like Song of the South would leave a far deeper, long-lasting impression on a fertile, black child's mind, than the adult-targeted Gone With the Wind ever would.
But I do know that Song of the South (1946) contains many universal themes that do transcend far beyond any given locale (the American, post-Civil War-torn Antebellum South) and ethnicity (the plight of the black slave in 1865 America), encompassing such human emotions as the spirit of self-sacrifice, sharing, the learning of lessons the hard way, love for animals and humankind in general, as well as the powers of healing through faith and prayer.
The interracial friendship between Johnny, grandson of a wealthy, white British plantation owner, and Toby, a poor black boy bound to his indentured servitude of slavery, serve as a connecting thread running throughout this movie, encompassing a warmth between the two as they treat each other as equals (as most children do worldwide, before they learn to do otherwise by not-so-enlightened adults).
One of the most poignant and heart-warming scenes in the movie is when Johnny and Ginny make a gift exchange (a puppy for a white lace collar) then take a "romantic" sail down river together. The beauty of this cinématic moment lies in the fact that they both volunteer their gift to one another spontaneously; the trade is not done or carried out for personal gain nor out of selfishness. Such magical moments on the silver screen are beautifully interwoven into timeless, universal sentiments of concern for one another and comforting of a friend in need. For it is Uncle Remus who says to little Johnny as they walk down the road together toward nightfall: "Honey, give me your hand. I need your eyes in the dark".
Now, let us examine more closely Uncle Remus himself, the main character and story-telling mouthpiece for Joel Chandler Harris' masterpiece of anecdotes, put so brilliantly on film. Uncle Remus is the incarnation of love and compassion, seemingly for all living creatures, much like Saint Francis of Assisi was. He is just as affectionate and at home with Mr. Bluebird or the butterfly Lady Nellie, with the singing possums, as he is with the fretting Brer Rabbit, as with Johnny's grandmother, his master. He even lights up the pipe of (animated) Brer Frog and they share a smoke together, a cinématic first, not to be duplicated since.
When Johnny is "missing", while he discovers Uncle Remus relating his tales to others under a tree, Aunt Tempy and the maid, upon arriving, are told by Uncle Remus: "Just tell them (Johnny's mother Sally and his grandmother) the boy's with me." Uncle Remus not only takes total responsibility for Johnny, he in essence, goes beyond the call of being a slave and asserts his own individual volition or choice almost over his master's wishes, those of Mrs. Doscha. In the beginning, he feigns wanting to "hit the road" with little Johnny, and the warmth radiated in this exchange reaches superlative heights. He uses "reverse-psychology" to win Johnny's trust in having him remain behind so that he (Uncle Remus) can relate his first anecdote of Brer Rabbit. In all of the stories of Brer Rabbit as told by Uncle Remus, there is an underlying moral or lesson to be learned, gained, and internalized into one's own life experience, as Johnny faithfully does. It is not too unlike Aesop's Fables or the didactic stories from medieval Spain of El conde Lucanor by Don Juan Manuel, pre-empting the tales of chivalry yet to follow. There is always, ultimately, a lesson to be learned and applied, through which Brer Rabbit serves as a pivotal thematic and structural device.
The term brer lends itself to interesting lingüistic speculation. Upon Brer Rabbit's first encounter on a country road with Brer Bear, Brer Rabbit calls him "Brother Bear". In French, the term for "brother" is frère and a Louisiana Cajun mixture (or corruption) of both terms brother and frère becomes Brer, used as a title in informal, direct address. Indeed, all characters animated or otherwise are "brotherly" to one another in Song of the South. Another interesting usage of language is the word "patch". In the movie, there is a briar patch, a cotton patch, and even a possum and bull patch, where o'possums and bulls are raised. Usage of pumpkin patch and cabbage patch are all that have survived into our present day speech.
Now, let us take a closer look at Brer Rabbit. He is the prime representation of independence of action and freedom of personal choice through maintaining his dignity and composure while under circumstances of extreme duress. This character undergoes a series of plights in which his intelligence and intuitive wit are called into play for his own survival. In a more limited (and hence restricted) sense, Brer Rabbit may symbolize the black slave's flight for freedom and perpetual avoidance of capture. In a broader (more universal) sense, Brer Rabbit can represent the triumph of the human spirit over limitation and oppression, over enslavement of any kind, be it mental, physical, or spiritual. Brer Rabbit displays a sharp, keen, perceptive nature, always outsmarting the other to obtain freedom from bondage. His precarious dramas and dilemmas reflect not only survival techniques employed by Negro slaves on tobacco plantations in the pre-Abolitionist South, but also escape measures used by hostages in war or out, by civilians or military personnel, as a means of outsmarting their captors.
So Johnny, heir to the plantation, follows Brer Rabbit's example (of insisting not to be thrown into the briarpatch by Brer Fox) and he ill-advises the bullying Faver brothers not to tell their mother, thus outwitting them. He later tells Toby: "We're supposed to use our heads instead of our foots". Brer Rabbit is the quintessential example of using one's wits, powers of reason, and intelligence over brute force and stupidity, as is displayed aptly in the cunning, scheming Brer Fox and clumsy, dim-witted Brer Bear. For this malevolent twosome represent the repressive forces of a closed society that ultimately attempts to dominate, control, and consequently kill the free spirit of the individual.
Toward the end of the film, Uncle Remus recounts another anecdote of Brer Rabbit laughing his head off just before he is about to be roasted alive over a fire by Brer Fox: he introduces The Laughing Place. After three foibled attempts in futility of trying (1) to capture Brer Rabbit by a rope hanging from a tree, (2) to fool Brer Rabbit with a tar baby placed atop a log, and (3) of allowing himself to be taken into a wood swarming with bees, both Brer Fox and Brer Bear realize that they have been duped, outwitted, and outsmarted by the cleverest of rabbits ever to hit the silver screen. Brer Rabbit ends up making the hornets' nest caper his laughing place, not theirs. And Uncle Remus points out that we all, adults and children alike, have to find our own Laughing Place. Now isn't there such simple, clear wisdom to be found in Uncle Remus' recommendation? All people, not just Johnny and Ginny, need to find a refuge wherein they can enjoy life, laugh a bit, and forget their concerns. In the end, it is Uncle Remus' laughingest place in the whole wide world that revives Johnny out of his bedridden, unconscious state, after being attacked by the running bull... not Johnny's parents.
The warmth and love radiated in this movie are unsurpassed, in my opinion. For, as Mrs. Doscha states to her daughter Sally, regarding her grandson Johnny: "Without Uncle Remus' stories he is utterly desolate". And as Johnny himself adds, while stating directly to Uncle Remus: "You're the best friend I have." Such sentiments far transcend the narrow scope and contaminated perspective of age differences, the color of one's skin, or the distinction in social class. And after Uncle Remus has saved face for almost everyone in the film, except for himself, he declares in utmost bliss: "Things are lookin' mighty satisfactual". It is Uncle Remus, through his perpetual kindheartedness and love for children, who comforts the crying Ginny after her naughty brothers push her in the mud while on her way to Johnny's birthday party. It is Ginny who saves Tinsha, the dog, from potential drowning by her malicious brothers, being juxtaposed beautifully against these meddlesome Faver boys. All throughout the movie, Ginny acts in stark contrast to them. Yet, Uncle Remus finds himself ultimately tied up with the dog dilemma, with trying to cover for Johnny with saving the dog's life, yet still having to answer to his master Sally by taking full blame for others' actions and misdeeds.
No movie, to my cinématic knowledge, has blended so beautifully and realistically animation and live action as has Song of the South. Even Toby does cartwheels alongside of Brer Rabbit in the end of the movie. In some respects, this movie reminds me of Miracle on 34th Street (1947), for Susie's Mom wants only the best for her young daughter, for her not to be confused by stories of fantasy (of Santa Clause's existence), as does Sally, Johnny's Mom, with Uncle Remus' tall tales of the trials and tribulations of Brer Rabbit, because "They only confuse". Curiously, the Christmas classic came out the very next year in July, 1947.
Such movies, whether banned or not, shall always endure in the minds and hearts of youngsters and adults alike who view them, for within such splendid screen gems as these are contained eternal truths that apply to all of humankind, from all times, of all geographic locations, and of all races, creeds, and colors. May the healing, loving powers of Uncle Remus live on forever, throughout Eternity and beyond.
NOTE: Webster's Dictionary defines "to ban" as...."to prohibit, as by official order, from doing, using, appearing, happening, etc,: forbid, censor." As long as millions of children and adults in the United States haven't access to this film, while millions of others do in the United Kingdom, in the Orient, and in other parts of the world, than it's prohibited from appearing, although not "by official order".
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