For more than a century, America has been obsessed with film—and no nation has been as dedicated to advancing it as an art and a powerful form of storytelling. But as America has advanced socially, it has become more critical of its history of film, and has all but erased some of its early storytelling, deeming it far too offensive for modern audiences.
Yet even in some of the films deemed most offensive, there are stories of progress, of change, and of triumph in the face of oppression that still need to be told.
This is the Forgotten History of The Role of a Lifetime.
James Baskett never thought much about show business. As a boy in Indianapolis, he attended vaudeville shows when he could afford to and was fascinated by the new moving pictures that were starting to be shown in playhouses around town, but acting as a career? He had more practical pursuits.
He wanted a career in pharmacology and attended Arsenal Tech to make his dream a reality. But money was always tight, and midway through his schooling, he could no longer afford tuition. He thought of the plays and silent pictures he enjoyed as a young man and, believing he didn’t have many options without a college education, abruptly changed course and moved to Chicago and then New York to begin a career in show business.
At the time, a new storytelling medium—radio—was taking off, and James moved to California to take a role on one of the most popular shows in the country, Amos ‘N Andy. James played the fast-talking lawyer Gabby Gibson. His performance was so well-received that he started to get movie roles in films like “Harlem in Heaven,” “Straight to Heaven,” and “Comes Midnight.”
But his big break came in 1941, when his experience in radio won him the voice-acting role of a crow in Walt Disney’s fourth animated feature film, Dumbo.
The film was a smash hit and James’ performance was so well-received that Disney invited him to join a new picture that would seamlessly blend live action with cartoons. It was to be a groundbreaking feat of cinema based on a southern newspaper columnist’s famous “Uncle Remus” stories. James would play a butterfly.
But during his audition for the film that was to be called “Song of the South,” Walt Disney himself noticed that James would be perfect for the lead role of Uncle Remus. He was the first live actor Disney ever hired.
Even though he was just 41 years old, he had gray hair and a full gray beard, and Disney thought him perfect for the role of the kindly old storyteller.
But the film was immediately met with controversy: Uncle Remus was a slave, and civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, promised a boycott because the film portrayed an idyllic version of slavery that masked its true horrors.
Yet while the role was derided, James’ acting wasn’t. He was a natural interacting with cartoon characters, and his charm was infectious, especially when he sang the film’s signature song, which became one of the most iconic in Disney’s history.
The film was profitable and well-received, but because of the controversy, Disney wanted to move on from it quickly. Still, James’ portrayal of Uncle Remus resonated, and while he wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award, there was a push to recognize the historic nature of what he had accomplished.
Journalist Hedda Hopper led a campaign for the Academy to honor James with an honorary Oscar, and on March 20th, 1948, he was.
With that, James became the first black man ever to win an Academy Award, and he is still the only person ever to receive an honorary Oscar for a single film. It was the proudest moment of his life, and unfortunately also one of the last.
James suffered from diabetes and had been in failing health for years. On July 9th, less than four months after his triumph, he passed away at the age of just 44.
Sadly, his greatest legacy largely died with him. The controversy surrounded “Song of the South” kept it from being re-released until 1956, and after that it wasn’t shown again until 1972. It has never been released on home video, meaning generation after generation have never seen or perhaps even heard of James Baskett or his historic performance.
But as controversial as Uncle Remus was, is, and always will be, for James, it was the role of a lifetime; a role he took on with a spring in his step, a smile on his face, and a song in his heart.