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Wednesday, March 28, 2007 - Page updated at 02:01 AM

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Disney ponders re-issue of classic "Song of the South"

The Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. — Walt Disney Co.'s 1946 film "Song of the South" was historic. It was Disney's first big live-action picture and produced one of the company's most famous songs — the Oscar-winning "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah." It also provided the inspiration for the Splash Mountain rides at Disney's theme parks.

But the movie remains hidden in the Disney archives — never released on video in the United States and criticized as racist for its depiction of Southern plantation blacks. The film's 60th anniversary passed last year without a whisper of official re-release, which is unusual for Disney, but President and CEO Bob Iger recently said the company was reconsidering.

The film's re-issue would surely spark debate, but it could also sell big. Nearly 115,000 people have signed an online petition urging Disney to make the movie available, and out-of-print international copies routinely sell online for $50 to $90, some even more than $100.

Iger was answering a shareholder's inquiry about the movie for the second straight year at Disney's annual meeting in New Orleans. This month the Disney chief made a re-release sound more possible.

"Our concern was that a film that was made so many decades ago being brought out today perhaps could be either misinterpreted or that it would be somewhat challenging in terms of providing the appropriate context."

"Song of the South" was re-shown in theaters in 1956, 1972, 1980 and 1986. Both animated and live-action, it tells the story of a young white boy, Johnny, who goes to live on his grandparents' Georgia plantation when his parents split up. Johnny is charmed by Uncle Remus — a popular black servant — and his fables of Brer Rabbit, Brer Bear and Brer Fox, which are actual black folk tales.

The movie doesn't reveal whether it takes place before or after the Civil War, and never refers to blacks on the plantation as slaves. Remus and other black characters' dialogue is full of "ain't nevers," "ain't nobodys," "you tells," and "dem dayses."

James Pappas, associate professor of African-American Studies at the University of New York at Buffalo, said the movie should be re-released because of its historical significance. He said it should be prefaced with present-day statements.

"I think it's important that these images are shown today so that especially young people can understand this historical context for some of the blatant stereotyping that's done today."

Christian Willis, a 26-year-old information-technology administrator in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., started a "Song of the South" fan site in 1999.

He doesn't think the movie is racist, just from a different time.

"Stereotypes did exist on the screen. But if you look at other films of that time period, I think 'Song of the South' was really quite tame in that regard. I think Disney did make an effort to show African Americans in a more positive light."

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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