Thoughts on "The Princess and the Frog"

{ exclusive feature}

Disney is set to release its latest animated feature length film, The Princess and the Frog. I know many kids and parents are excited to see the film. I’d like to share some of my thoughts and concerns after being “lucky” enough to see one of the advanced screenings over the weekend. Disney is notoriously bad when it comes to cultural sensitivity and progressive politics. I can still recall scenes from several Disney films as a child. It wasn’t until much later that I realized just how much racism was contained in these movies. It’s more troubling that these films were designed for a young audience.

After viewing the above clip, I shudder to think what, in their opinion, would make a Black person black. But even at the risk of giving more ammunition to Disney, I still think it’s fair to say that people of color have been dragged through the mud in this country. From Uncle Remus who happily worked on a plantation during the postbellum period in Song of the South to the story of Aladdin which begins “on a dark night, where a dark man waits, with a dark purpose”, the colorful characters portrayed on screen in the vast majority of Disney's animated films have been problematic at best.

Disney is by no means alone in their racist depictions. Hollywood has a long tradition of profiting from it's portrayal of African-Americans as morally and mentally inferior as well as rewarding the individuals willing to play these roles. Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American woman to win an Oscar for her portrayal of "Mammy" in Gone With the Wind in 1939. More than 60 years later, Halle Berry became the first African-American to win an Oscar for Best Actress for her ability to effectively blur the distinction between ravishment and romance in Monster’s Ball. Clearly, the relationship between black people and the Hollywood machine has never been one built on respect (not for us). And yet, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, otherwise reasonably intelligent people believe that Disney suddenly has our best interests at heart with this latest offering. It is important to remember that Disney’s goal has never been to serve our community, but rather to make money. And, more times than not, it has been at our expense.

Whenever I have a discussion about Disney’s racist record, I usually encounter two kinds of people: those who are offended by the overt and covert racism and those who apologize for it. “At least,” the apologist will argue, “we are there!” It doesn’t seem to matter if we are primarily depicted as buffoons or prostitutes. "Would you rather we were absent instead?" they might ask."Yes, I would.”

The fatal flaw of The Princess and the Frog isn’t the overt racism (although it is there), it's the refusal to acknowledge that racism and confront it. Predictably, Voodoo and magic are used interchangeably in this film. This is only allowed because most of our (mis)information about the West African-based religion comes from popular television and movies saturated with images of pin cushion dolls, voodoo dust and tribal war paint. While there are some who would argue— not without some merit, I might add— that all religion is based on myth and superstition, I still believe that most Christians would take offense if Rosary beads were used as a talisman or if Jesus replaced Genie in the next installment of Aladdin.

Even during the height of her popularity (and definitely before in the 1920's when this film takes place), Hattie McDaniel’s visibility was intentionally reduced, particularly in the South. In The Princess and the Frog, Tiana is given a similar treatment by spending most of her time on screen as a frog. Is there anyone who truly believes the company that green lighted this film, and apparently went through several drafts of the script, was not acutely aware of just how much time African-Americans would be on screen? Let's focus on some of the script changes that were reportedly made. Originally, the heroine’s name was “Maddy”, just a single phonemic slip away from “Mammy”. Moreover, Tiana’s occupation was changed from a maid to aspiring Restaurateur. One might wonder why this change was made since many of Disney's princesses come from humble origins. I would argue that this change was made because to place her in such an obviously subservient position would probably remind viewers of the era in which the story takes place: one marred by the kind of extreme racism and violence that Disney is apparently trying to replace with a more white-washed version containing just a dash of jazz-inspired mysticism. Originally, Prince Naveen was reported to be a jazz-loving ruler from a European Country. By giving him a more Olive complexion, and by choosing a Brazilian actor to voice him, Disney employs a Goldilocks strategy here. He's not exactly white to the black folks and hopefully not too black for the white folks. Like the porridge, he's just right. Disney is really giving us a chameleon instead of a frog. The marketing team for this film has done a great job in making the public believe this is a barrier-breaking film by the very existence of prominent non-white characters. Upon closer inspection, however, we realize that these characters do little to challenge the underlying fears and bigotries of the audience it’s trying to capture. Instead, they promote and reinforce them. Prince Naveen does little to challenge the well-worn and racist concept of the white male (now whitish) coming in to save the non-white female from the non-white male. Consequently, this film mostly continues Disney’s awful tradition of blatant sexism and color-coding. One should note that it’s almost always possible to distinguish the heroes from the villains based on the shade of the characters (the brighter the righter). The presence of more “pronounced” (read ethnic) features and a stronger accent usually denotes a villain as well. One need only watch Aladdin or Mulan to see recent examples of all three.

I’m well aware of most of the responses to the aforementioned observations made by the supporters of the film. Here are the most common questions/complaints: “Why must you view everything through the lens of race?” “Why can't you just enjoy the film without analyzing it?” “Why are you even wasting your time writing about a kid’s movie?” Fair enough. I have no problem addressing these questions. I find that it’s much harder for supporters to answer any of the questions I pose to them. I can and do enjoy films for their own sake. I don’t always try to "analyze" a film. On the other hand, I’m not able to turn off my brain either. I can’t pretend that something is not offensive when it is. I haven’t acquired that skill that supporters seem to have in spades. Every film (even the ones I thoroughly enjoy) will get a mixed reaction from me. This should be the case for anyone with discerning taste and intelligence. I’ve never seen a perfect film. How would it even be possible to produce one? My goal here is to give you my impressions of the film. I have to write honestly about the films I watch. If I were dishonest, then my point of view and analysis wouldn’t mean very much to anyone who reads it (including myself). I can both appreciate the beautiful animation and detest the animus behind it. I suppose it would be a fair criticism of me to say that I’m a black man who isn’t satisfied by the token black princess Disney has decided to throw our way. I don’t care if this is the first and only black princess Disney ever gives us. In fact, if this is what we have to look forward to seeing, then I hope she is the first and last. I realize that in the era of so many black firsts, there is added pressure on black critics to be silent lest our criticism causes us to be seen as ungrateful and undeserving of the gifts generously bestowed upon us by the people who really matter. However, if mere criticism can cause the gains we’ve made to be lost, then they deserve to be lost and I wouldn’t want them anyway. No one pleaded with Disney to release a film featuring a black princess and no one is going to prevent me from speaking out about important issues because I might rain on the Disney parade. Yes, I’m an ungrateful black man! I’m downright uppity! Here are some questions that I would love some of the more ardent supporters of the film to answer: 1) Why do you feel the need to always discount race or believe that a person can’t be racist unless they’re wearing a white sheet? 2) Why are you so willing to sacrifice your dignity for the sake of inclusion?

Mainstream movies often transmit values as well as information to viewers. They often capture the prevailing mood or attitudes of the day. The responsible viewer must ask some important questions at one point or another: What information is being transmitted to me? Why is this information being transmitted to me? How should I interpret what I’m seeing? Why do I choose to see this film (and not another)? However, these kinds of questions, like the movies themselves, do not occur in a vacuum. Our ability to even ask these questions is often just as important as the answers we give. I’m seriously concerned with the critical discourse (or lack thereof) that’s taking place with respect to the ideas and images we choose to endorse with our dollars. I fear that this same lack of critical thought has dire consequence for us both inside and outside of the theater.

With the rise of a real life "Prince Naveen" in Barack Obama, we’ve seen a rash of reflexive films that try to be “post racial”—to tell universal human interest stories. Clint Eastwood is set to release his latest offering (Invictus) that tells the dramatic story of Nelson Mandela. Apparently, spending nearly 3 decades in a hell hole because of racists, going on to become president of the country that jailed you and forgiving those that jailed you isn’t enough of a story. We need Matt Damon playing rugby too. In the Blind Side, we have yet another example of a mentally slow, but physically strong black man teaching white people what it means to be human. I feel compelled to ask some viewers: Are we not able to exist outside the purview and assumed benevolence of white people? In The Princess and the Frog, set during the same era of such stars as Hattie McDaniel and Stepin Fetchit, there were virtually no overt or extreme cases of racism on display. Why? Ostensibly, the reason is because this is a movie for children. They shouldn't be subjected to such blunt realities and hard truths. The alternative, however, has been to ignore it and choose to see the world, not through the much maligned “lens of race”, but through a much more “noble” point of view. Consequently, we have children who are never taught to directly and honestly address the issues that will certainly address them at some point. Instead, they are taught to celebrate ignorance. They go on to become “educated” in an equally white-washed curriculum. Eventually, these young people will grow up to become the kinds of adults who will ask people like me: Why do you have to see race? For some of them, they haven’t had to deal the repercussions of their unchecked ignorance and racism. For others, they’ve seen the negative consequences for doing so. And so, when someone brings up the issue, the problem isn't the racism itself, but the person bringing up the racism. “Can't we just enjoy the mentacidal fairy tale?” they ask. Yes, you can. But I would not subject my young daughter (or son) to this or much television or movies in general. The approximately 110 minutes spent watching this film together would be better spent reading to them or taking them outside to play. Children are very impressionable. They will absorb more information at a greater rate now more than any other period in their life. Give your children a chance to develop their naturally curious minds and intellect before bombarding them with so many potentially harmful messages and images.

I realize there are much greater things to be worried about than a Disney film. That is why the scope of this blog is not solely focused on this film. Rather, it is a starting point to address some of the issues that continue to plague us as a people. I am reminded of a line Chris Rock said in his latest comedy special, Kill the Messenger .In regard to the possibility of witnessing Barack Obama become president, he quipped, "I hope he wins just so as a Black parent I can stop giving that 'you can do whatever you want to do, baby' speech.” The crowd laughed with him; they connected with him. To some parents, I suppose this film will finally give them the opportunity to legitimately consider their daughters as "precious" (the adjective instead of the movie). I suppose they may feel like they’ve finally been given permission to value their children in a way other parents have always taken for granted. Until you realize just how ultimately self-defeating that kind of thinking is, I don’t see too many fairy tale endings in our future -- on screen or off.