It should be music to our Mickey Mouse ears. Not only has Disney finally come to its senses and decided to return to the 2-D animation upon which they’d built their empire, but The Princess and the Frog would feature the first black Disney Princess.™ (Yes, it’s a trademark now.) The long-overdue heroine, Princess Tiana, is a young woman living in Jazz Age New Orleans who must go on a quest to restore her human form when, after kissing a disguised prince, a voodoo spell turns her into an amphibian as well.
Tiana will take her place in Disney’s elite pantheon of beauties. This officially includes Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Jasmine, and Belle — characters who, together, make up a $4 billion dollar entertainment empire adept at hooking little girls as young as 2. (Pocahontas and Mulan are only occasionally included in the lineup, not because of their ethnicities, but because their active, no-nonsense lifestyles don’t lend themselves to the kind of frilly costumery little girls prefer).
There’s reason for everyone to celebrate this move, the Magic Kingdom and the real world alike. Animation buffs are cheering the studio’s choice of directors John Musker and Ron Clements (of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin), whom it was assumed would steer the project toward more traditional, time-tested territory, allowing Disney to wash its hands of recent 2-D flops like Home on the Range. The parents of African-American girls are an untapped market for the Disney Princess franchise. And as a franchise that’s already featured princesses of Arab, Chinese, and American Indian descent, it’s an absurdly overdue move.
Indeed, Disney is one entertainment behemoth not always noted for its racial sensitivity. It would be cruel to catalogue all the studio’s gaffes, but lowlights include Jim Crow and his singing buddies from Dumbo and The Jungle Book’s King Louie, the jive-talking ape who “want[s] to be like you” (i.e. human). And then there’s the bizarre case of Sunflower, the jolly black centaurette from Fantasia who helps the other (white) centaurettes primp for their dates with the male centaurs. But you won’t see her on your DVD copy of the film — she’s been excised from every print after 1960, and the studio still (probably wisely) refuses to acknowledge that she was ever in it.
John Lasseter, chief creative officer at Disney and Pixar, told The Washington Post that this time, they’re doing it right. He said the studio has “worked very closely with a lot of leaders in the African-American community, all across the nation, to make sure we’re doing something African-American families will be proud of. We’ve been very careful and cognizant about what we’re doing.”
But early this year, Disney’s PR squad suddenly announced that Princess Tiana, who it originally declared would be chambermaid named Maddy, could neither be a chambermaid, nor named Maddy. The consultants-that-be had decided that the name bore uncomfortable similarity to the stereotypical slave name “Mammy.” The chambermaid gig was equally unacceptable, since such a menial station is not befitting a Disney Princess™ (apparently nobody told Cinderella). Now the newly-christened Tiana is a waitress and aspiring cook who dreams of opening her own restaurant. Appropriate for our post-feminist era, she has career goals beyond being carried off on Prince Charming’s white horse.
Before the Maddy dust-up could even blow out of sight, Disney introduced more questionable secondary characters, including a lovelorn Cajun firefly and a voodoo priestess. Especially eyebrow-raising was the skin color of Tiana’s prince, Naveen: it’s decidedly light, even though he hails from the fictional kingdom of Maldonia and has the voice of a Brazilian actor.
A commentator on Essence.com wrote: “What is the problem with a strong black male image? Why do the media not believe that a black male can hold down a leading role, even in a cartoon? Hello, anyone ever heard of Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Sidney Poitier?” One would think the timing for a black male lead couldn’t be better, considering that the most visible couple in America right now is African-American. But Disney has repeatedly been forced to insist that he’s not white, and interracial relationships have value, too. In fact, it seems like Disney has spent more time trying to put out the fires of racial controversy than actually making the film.
It’s becoming clear that the House of Mouse is in danger of letting itself be dictated right out of its own film. Michael Eisner, engineer of the “Disney Decade”, must be rolling over in his king-sized bed in Malibu. But, then again, this is a company who, for 50-odd years now, has worn a serious albatross around its neck, and its name ain’t Scuttle. It’s Song of the South.
Jim Crow and King Louie are nothing compared to the battering this film has taken since its release in 1948. The film is based on Joel Chandler Harris’ book of animal stories, as told to him in heavy African-American dialect by Uncle Remus, an ex-slave on his family’s plantation. On-screen, Uncle Remus is portrayed by the utterly beguiling James Baskett, who replicates the authentic dialect. The stories he tells to Johnny, his young white visitor, segue into animated musical sequences. All of the stories center on Br’er Rabbit, a classic trickster character in the tradition of African folktales. He’s physically outmatched by his enemies, Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear, but this “bodacious critter” has it where it counts — in the coconut. When Br’er Fox catches him in a sticky trap made of tar, Br’er Rabbit escapes using classic reverse psychology.
“Please don’t throw me in the briar patch,” Br’er Rabbit tells the fox, knowing it’s the one place he can wiggle through that Br’er Fox can’t. This piece of wisdom from Uncle Remus later helps Johnny outwit two neighbor boys trying to steal back a puppy given to him as gift. More conflict arises when Johnny’s mother, alarmed by the scrapes he’s gotten into, forbids him from spending any more time with Uncle Remus. But it’s still the lessons of Br’er Rabbit, thanks to Uncle Remus, that come out on top in the end.
Although the story is Johnny’s, Uncle Remus is its hero. He gives Johnny the strength and confidence he needs to get over his loneliness for his absent father, and in the end, Uncle Remus’s return literally saves Johnny’s life. He’s a friend and trusted advisor to the plantation’s mistress, and he suffers a crisis of his own when he comes to believe his stories are no longer wanted. In fact, a first-ever viewing of the film (streaming from a site in the UK, the only place it’s readily available) revealed that every white person in the film is insufferable: Johnny is whiny and spoiled; his mother is a shrill, narrow-minded harpy; the neighbor boys are filthy, mean-spirited hicks. Besides cute, clever Br’er Rabbit, Uncle Remus is the only character portrayed with respect and dignity.
The issue, then, is not how he’s portrayed, but that he’s portrayed at all. Some critics simply will never accept that Disney had any right to attempt black dialect, or to show an African-American living happily on a plantation where he’d been a slave. Tiana, cook or chambermaid, princess or peasant, will be subject to the same near-impossible obstacles.
Though the moppets who, in a year’s time, will be lacing up their pink Princess Tiana sneakers may not be familiar with Uncle Remus, their elders footing the bill for the sneakers (and the movie tickets before them) no doubt are. And the same cultural critics breathing down Disney’s necks now are some of the very same ones who have helped block Song of the South’s release on home video for the past 30 years — the ones who would be just as happy to see the studio fail once again.
Baskett won a richly-deserved honorary Oscar for his role as Uncle Remus, but didn’t attend the premier in Atlanta because he wouldn’t have been allowed in the theatre. This was only the start of the film’s troubles. Blasted for slapping a happy grin on slavery and portraying blacks as happy-go-lucky minstrels with poor grammar, the film has never been released for home viewing in the US.
There’s a growing clamor to change this. A petition to Disney to release the film now has over 120,000 signatures. It’s the brainchild of Christian Willis, the operator of SongoftheSouth.net, a site devoted to all aspects of the film. He said “We live in a world today where sex, drugs, and violence are now the norm on the silver screen. At least Song of the South made an attempt at showing harmony. And not only did it attempt at showing harmony within a family, but harmony between races as well.”
Neither Harris nor Disney were interested in teaching kids the brand of history they could have gotten from a schoolbook. What they created was a gentle-handed portrayal of a long-ago place, in what happened to be an unimaginably difficult time for America. But it was also a place with small conflicts and simple joys — in other words, the messy spectrum of human experience. Whether Lasseter and his team want to take 1920s New Orleans and make it grittier, unflinching in the face of discrimination and hardship, is their choice. But they must be permitted to make it with honesty and freedom of vision. This is why every Disney Princess in the franchise, from Ariel the mermaid to Mulan the Chinese warrior, has thrived, and Tiana deserves no less.
Of course, the last thing Disney wants is to spend another 50 years cowering in Pluto’s doghouse because of a racial slip-up, especially not in a film they’re counting on to kick off another 2-D animation renaissance. They’re tiptoeing around Burbank on eggshells. But by cowing to those who were probably determined to be offended by The Princess and the Frog from the first pencil test (and will inevitably find more fuel for their outrage once it’s released in December), they’re losing the opportunity to answer for Song of the South, letting today’s kids see what their 1940s counterparts didn’t. Experiencing all of Tiana’s obstacles will make her ultimate triumphs that much more magical.
Happily, many key players in the black community have expressed enthusiastic support for the film. The voice of Princess Tiana herself, Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls) has said, “If it [the film] was something that I felt was so disrespectful to me or to my heritage, I would not be a part of it.” Oprah Winfrey even voices Tiana’s mother.
Fact is, many young black women in the 1920s did work as chambermaids and cooks, simply because it was one of the few opportunities available to them. If Princess Tiana has the gumption to overcome these very real circumstances, whether it’s via pixie dust or some Mulan-style butt-kicking, she’s worthy of the Disney Princess™ crown and, by anyone’s definition, a fine role model for today’s girls. By dictating to Disney what it is and isn’t allowed to portray, critics are unwittingly sending the studio down the path of having yet another Song of the South on its hands — and maybe even 50 more years of sweaty, apologetic hand-wringing.
For Disney and for its fans of all ages, artistic freedom must continue, whether it means a chambermaid heroine named Maddy, or the light-skinned prince from a made-up country who falls for her. This is a company that, from the day it put a pants-wearing mouse at the helm of a steamboat, has always been in the business of magic; of the impossible. Walt Disney made billions because he fed the public’s appetite for seeing things as they could be, rather than as they are, or were. In Song of the South, it’s that the clever trickster always gets the best of his slow-witted adversaries, and a storytelling ex-slave could be treated with dignity and respect. It’s also the idea that an ordinary girl, of any race, in 1920s New Orleans could kiss a frog and become a princess. If Tiana’s creators are willing to stifle their imaginations because of the whims of a few hysterical race-baiters, they, like Br’er Rabbit, will find themselves stuck in the tar trap all over again.