After decades of accusations of stereotyping and racism in its animated characters, Disney is set to release a film starring a black princess. "The Princess and the Frog" does not hit theaters until December, but the buzz is already starting to build. And according to The New York Times, much if it is negative.
The film's heroine is Princess Tiana, a waitress in 1920s New Orleans who dreams of becoming a chef and owning her own restaurant. When she is persuaded to kiss a frog who is really a prince, the spell backfires, and she becomes a frog herself. Cori Murray, an entertainment director at Essence magazine, recently told CNN:
“Finally, here is something that all little girls, especially young black girls, can embrace.”
But not everyone feels that way. After reviewing photos of merchandise tied to the movie, Black Voices, a Web site on AOL dedicated to African-American culture, lashed out at Disney for the prince's relatively light skin color.
"Disney obviously doesn’t think a black man is worthy of the title of prince. His hair and features are decidedly non-black. This has left many in the community shaking their head in befuddlement and even rage.”
Prince Naveen hails from the fictional land of Maldonia and is voiced by a Brazilian actor. Disney says that he is not white. Other people are taking issue with the film's locale. William Blackburn, a former columnist at The Charlotte Observer, brought up the Hurricane Katrina disaster when he told London’s Daily Telegraph: “Disney should be ashamed. This princess story is set in New Orleans, the setting of one of the most devastating tragedies to beset a black community.”
One of the film's producers, Peter Del Vecho, says the movie is set in New Orleans because of it's colorful past and deep musical history: “As we spent time in New Orleans, we realized how truly it is a melting pot, which is how the idea of strongly multicultural characters came about.”
Few people outside the company have seen actual footage of the movie, which is still unfinished. Among them are Oprah Winfrey, who voices Tiana's mother, and is a consultant on the racial aspects of the film. Movie theater owners and members of the NAACP have also been shown scenes. Their reactions, according to a Disney spokeswoman, were “extremely positive.”
Disney does have some fence mending to do with minority groups. Many are still angry over what they call Disney's history of racial stereotyping. That includes 1941's Dumbo with its band of uneducated, pimp-hat-wearing crows. And all the animals in “The Jungle Book” from 1967 speak in proper British accents except for the jive-talking monkeys who desperately want to become “real people.” Disney says that criticism applies 21st century morals to films made in very different times.
While Disney is clearly going in a new direction, Kathy Franklin, vice president of global studio franchise development for Disney Consumer Products, told USA Today it is not trying to make up for the past: "It was much more about the storytelling. This was not about a conscious decision to say we need an African-American princess."