February 16

February 16


February 16, 1904

Birthday of James Baskett, Disney's First Live Actor

James Baskett is one of many African-American actors whose name may be unfamiliar to white audiences. In 1945, Baskett was hired to give voice to a singing butterfly in Song of the South, a Disney film that would combine cartoon characters with a live actor for the first time. Walt Disney himself reportedly was so taken with Baskett that he gave him the added role as the voice of Brer Fox, then hired him to portray the on-screen narrator, Uncle Remus. Remus was the only actual character in the film, and Baskett thus became the first live actor ever to appear in a Disney production.

Song of the South won a 1946 Oscar for Best Song ('Zip-a-Dee-Doo Dah.') In 1948, Baskett was awarded an honorary Oscar for his work on the film; he died later the same year.

Song of the South was based on the stories of Joel Chandler Harris. Harris was a white author who compiled stories told to him by former slaves. He is sometimes credited with preserving the oral tradition of those slave narratives. But the Disney film drew criticism from many African-Americans for its casual treatment of slavery, downplaying the horrors of servitude and perpetuating the myth of the "happy slave." As a result, the Walt Disney Co. has never released Song of the South on video or DVD in the United States. (Baskett did not attend the premier of the film, reportedly because no hotel in Atlanta would rent a room to a black man in 1946.)

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