Jul 9, 2021
Even specialists in African-African history could be forgiven for drawing a blank at the mention of the name of Indianapolis native James Baskett. In spite of being the first black male actor to win an Oscar - for a role in which he sang a song that also won an Academy Award - Baskett's place in the annals of African-American history seems to be largely forgotten.
That's because the role for which Baskett won his honorary Oscar was that of Uncle Remus in the much maligned, now virtually banned film Song of the South. The Disney musical was a modest hit when it was released in 1946, but changing sensibilities about race over the past three quarters of a century have made the film toxic to the image-conscious studio.
Disney chose not to release the film for home viewing during the 1980s VCR boom; nor did they cash in on a DVD release in recent decades. With the 2019 advent of the Disney+ streaming service, Song of the South once again found itself locked out of the Magic Kingdom.
And not without good cause. Film critics and historians have condemned the film's sweetly nostalgic portrayal of the social hierarchy of Reconstruction-era South. As Guardian film blogger Xan Brooks put it recently, "the film trades in a dubious form of myth-making - implying that African-Americans stuck below the Mason-Dixon line were a cheerful bunch who liked nothing better than going fishing, spinning tall tales and looking after white folks' kids."
The very title of the film and its focus on song can be viewed as perpetuating a racist myth. As 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass - who himself escaped slavery - commented, the singing of enslaved people in the Southern United States was not evidence of their contentment or happiness.
"It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake," Douglas wrote. "Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy."
But does the film deserve to be virtually banned, especially when a novel like Gone with the Wind and its 1939 film adaption - with all their racial stereotyping, glorification of white privilege and perpetuation of the myth of the "happy slave" - are still held up as classics?
Does Song of the South have anything to offer the modern viewer? Does the legacy of Hoosier James Baskett deserve to be reevaluated?
These are the questions explored by Hoosier History Live associate producer and guest host Mick Armbruster in this encore of a show that first aired in January of 2020. Mick is joined in studio by two guests:
The show also looks into how Baskett's portrayal of the Uncle Remus character might teach us something about the role of folklore in African-American culture, and explore how the content of his tales - with their focus on the archetypal trickster Brer Rabbit - can be traced back to folklore found among native cultures in Africa.
And while the discussion may not leave listeners whistling "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah," we hope it does give them an appreciation of the legacy of Hoosier James Baskett and a more nuanced understanding of the film he starred in.