Owing to the significant and continued controversy surrounding the film's treatment of slavery and the portrayal of its African American characters, Disney has been reluctant to reissue the film in the United States, having last been seen legally in said territory in 1986. The studio did make the film available on video in Europe and Asia, and bootleg copies are frequently derived from them.
Disney first re-released the film in 1956. In 1970, Disney announced in Variety that the film had been "permanently" retired. The studio changed its mind and re-released the film in 1972, 1981, and 1986.
James Baskett originally auditioned to play the butterfly. Not only did he play Uncle Remus, he played Brer Rabbit for the "Laughing Place" scene and sang the "Laughing Place" song after Johnny Lee was called away to do promotion for the picture. Baskett also played the butterfly.
After abandoning his studies of pharmacology for financial reasons, James Baskett supported himself as an actor, moving from his home town of Indianapolis, Indiana to New York City, New York and joining the company of Bill Robinson, better known as Mr. Bojangles. After achieving moderate success on the stage, Baskett and his family moved to Hollywood where he found work in a couple of films. In 1945, he auditioned for a bit part of voicing a talking butterfly in the new Disney feature film Song of the South (1946). "I thought that, maybe, they'd try me out to furnish the voice for one of Uncle Remus' animals," Baskett remarked. Upon review of his voice, Walt Disney wanted to meet Baskett personally, and had him tested for the role of Uncle Remus. Not only did Baskett get the part of the butterfly's voice, but also the voice of Br'er Fox and the live-action role of Uncle Remus as well. Additionally, Baskett filled in as the voice of Br'er Rabbit for Johnny Lee in the "Laughing Place" scene after Lee was called away to do promotion for the picture. Disney liked Baskett, and told his sister Ruth [Disney] that Baskett was "the best actor, I believe, to be discovered in years". This was one of the first Hollywood portrayals of a black actor as a non-comic character in a leading role in a film meant for general audiences. Even after the film's release, Disney maintained contact with Baskett, where the two became close friends, like brothers. Disney also campaigned for Baskett to be given an Academy Award for his performance, saying that he had worked "almost wholly without direction" and had devised the characterization of Remus himself. Thanks to Disney's efforts, Baskett won an Honorary Academy Award in 1948. Four months after the Academy Awards ceremony, James Baskett died from heart failure resulting from diabetes. After his death, James' widow, Margaret, wrote to Disney and told him that he had been a "friend indeed and [we] certainly have been in need."
On the final day of shooting, animation director Wilfred Jackson discovered that the scene in which Uncle Remus sings the film's signature song, "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah", had not been properly blocked. According to Jackson, "We all sat there in a circle with the dollars running out, and nobody came up with anything. Then Walt suggested that they shoot Baskett in close-up, cover the lights with cardboard save for a sliver of blue sky behind his head, and then remove the cardboard from the lights when he began singing so that he would seem to be entering a bright new world of animation. Like Walt's idea for Bambi on ice in Bambi (1942), it made for one of the most memorable scenes in the film."
Song of the South (1946) had its world premiere at the Fox Theater in Atlanta, Georgia. Walt Disney made introductory remarks, introduced the cast, then quietly left for his room at the Georgian Terrace Hotel across the street; he had previously stated that unexpected audience reactions upset him and he was better off not seeing the film with an audience. James Baskett was unable to attend the film's premiere because he would not have been allowed to participate in any of the festivities, as Atlanta was then a racially segregated city. In fact, the second reason why Disney did not watch the film during its premiere screening was for out of respect for Baskett, who was banned to attend the premiere.
Widely regarded as the "black sheep" of the Disney family, the bastardized film has been primarily disowned by the company. However, the classic music can still often be heard throughout the theme parks and other various outlets - unknown to most younger generations who have no association with it.
The complete film has never been released on DVD in the USA, but extensive clips appear on the Alice in Wonderland (1951) Un-Anniversary Edition DVD (2010), in the special feature One Hour in Wonderland (1950).
Screenwriter Dalton S. Reymond wrote a story treatment for the film. Because Reymond was not a professional screenwriter, Maurice Rapf, who had been writing live-action features at the time, was asked by Walt Disney Productions to work with Reymond to turn the treatment into a shootable screenplay. According to Neal Gabler, one of the reasons Walt Disney had hired Rapf to work with Reymond was to temper what Disney feared would be Reymond's "white Southern slant". Rapf was a minority, a Jew, and an outspoken left-winger, and he himself feared that the film would inevitably be Uncle Tomish. "That's exactly why I want you to work on it," Walt told him, "because I know that you don't think I should make the movie. You're against Uncle Tomism, and you're a radical." Rapf initially hesitated, but when he found out that most of the film would be live-action and that he could make extensive changes, he accepted the offer. Rapf worked on "Uncle Remus" for about seven weeks. When he got into a personal dispute with Reymond, Rapf was taken off the project. According to Rapf, Walt Disney "ended every conference by saying 'Well, I think we've really licked it now.' Then he'd call you the next morning and say, 'I've got a new idea.' And he'd have one. Sometimes the ideas were good, sometimes they were terrible, but you could never really satisfy him." Morton Grant was assigned to the project. Disney sent out the script for comment both within the studio and outside the studio.
Walt Disney had long wanted to make a film based on the Uncle Remus storybook, but it was not until the mid-1940s that he had found a way to give the stories an adequate film equivalent in scope and fidelity. "I always felt that Uncle Remus should be played by a living person", Disney commented, "as should also the young boy to whom Harris' old Negro philosopher relates his vivid stories of the Briar Patch. Several tests in previous pictures, especially in The Three Caballeros (1944), were encouraging in the way living action and animation could be dovetailed. Finally, months ago, we 'took our foot in hand,' in the words of Uncle Remus, and jumped into our most venturesome but also more pleasurable undertaking."
Although he was occasionally criticized for accepting such a "demeaning" role, James Baskett's performance as Uncle Remus was almost universally praised by critics and audiences alike. Columnist Hedda Hopper was one of the many journalists and supporters who declared that Baskett should not only have been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor at the 11th Academy Awards ceremony in 1948, but also to win it.
Walt Disney frequently met with director King Vidor, in hopes of hiring him to direct the live-action sequences. Vidor is also responsible for directing the sepia-tone Kansas sequences in The Wizard of Oz (1939), including Judy Garland's legendary "Over the Rainbow" musical number.
According to page 93 of James Snead's book, "White Screens/Black images", "At the film's New York premiere in Times Square, dozens of black and white pickets chanted, 'We fought for Uncle Sam, not Uncle Tom,' while the NAACP called for a total boycott of the film, and the National Negro Congress called on black people to 'run the picture out of the area.'"
Robert A. Iger, the current CEO and Chairman of The Walt Disney Company, stated that he can: ride Space Mountain as many times as he wants, dig out the still unreleased-on-home-video Song of the South (1946) and give it a spin if he feels like it, get a reservation at Club 33 without problems, and watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) a few times before its Christmas 2015 release. He said that "I have that right" as CEO of The Walt Disney Company.
Walt Disney first began to negotiate with Joel Chandler Harris' family for the rights in 1939, and by late summer of that year he already had one of his storyboard artists summarize the more promising tales and draw up four boards' worth of story sketches. In November 1940, Disney visited the Harris' home in Atlanta. He told Variety that he wanted to "get an authentic feeling of Uncle Remus country so we can do as faithful a job as possible to these stories." Roy O. Disney had misgivings about the project, doubting that it was "big enough in caliber and natural draft" to warrant a budget over $1 million and more than twenty-five minutes of animation, but in June 1944, Disney hired Southern-born writer Dalton Reymond (Jezebel (1938), The Little Foxes (1941)) to write the screenplay.
On May 8, 2007, the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, which includes representatives from the Los Angeles Civil Rights Association, the NAACP National Board, and the Youth Advocacy Coalition, sent out a press release denouncing Disney's rumors to re-release the film again.
In an article titled "Disney's Laughin' Place," Frank Stephenson said "Following its debut, the NAACP registered its official displeasure of what it called the film's 'racial stereotyping', a charge echoed by the National Urban League."
The stories used in the film were recorded by Atlanta journalist Joel Chandler Harris who spent a great deal of time speaking with freed slaves and other African Americans recording their stories for posterity. Many of the stories were written in the regional dialect of the African Americans of the period. Many consider the portrayal of reconstruction African Americans as offensive even if the spirit of the film is to give an authentic look into the lives and times of Southern African Americans in the time following the Civil War.