When the National Association of Black Journalists convenes this week in Tampa, Walt Disney Pictures will present a sneak preview of a new movie raising old questions about racism in Mouse House animation.
The Princess and the Frog, opening nationwide Dec. 11, marks the first time that a female Disney hero is African-American. Princess Tiana (voice of Anika Noni Rose) kisses a frog, transforming him into a prince, and they'll eventually live happily ever after.
After showcasing women of other colors (Pocahontas, Mulan, Princess Jasmine of Aladdin), adding a black woman to Disney's canon is a breakthrough. Yet the recent release of a preview trailer — showing Tiana's suitor Prince Naveen as light-skinned with Caucasian features (albeit with a Latin accent) — raises doubt about Disney's dedication to cultural advancement.
Search "Disney black princess" on the Web and reactions to Tiana's interracial romance can be intense reads.
Some posters complain Disney is protecting its box office potential by not appearing "too black" for white moviegoers. Others insist they won't expose their children to an interracial relationship on screen. A few don't like Disney setting The Princess and the Frog in New Orleans, where African-Americans still suffer the effects of Hurricane Katrina. The trailer's glimpse of a black voodoo man and exaggerated Cajun accents draw mild protests.
And some posters dismiss all complaints, telling the offended to get a life.
Disney's decision to show The Princess and the Frog at the NABJ convention suggests the studio thinks it's doing the right thing. After all, these journalists will immediately begin sharing impressions of the film from African-American perspectives, positive or not. (Disney is also a "Platinum Sponsor" of the convention, footing the bill for several events.)
But the tempest again raises memories of times when Disney animated hits were lambasted for unflattering racial stereotypes, either in their time, like Aladdin, or through hindsight, as with Song of the South and Dumbo.
Looking back at the studio's past explains why the present with The Princess and the Frog is a touchy situation. These seven commercial successes created controversies that Disney would rather forget:
During the Pastoral Symphony segment, a playful group of creatures includes a black centaur with exaggerated features shining the hooves of a graceful white centaur. Starting in 1969, that image was removed from all versions of Fantasia, or framed so only the white centaur is shown.
Take your pick. Either the shuffling, minstrel show crows (one named Jim Crow) singing: "I be done seen 'bout ev'rything when I see an elephant fly," or Song of the Roustabouts when faceless black men perform menial labor while singing: "We never learned to read and write" and "Grab that rope, you hairy ape."
Song of the South (1946)
Kindly storyteller Uncle Remus (James Baskett) speaks — and sings Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah — in an uneducated dialect suitable for a post-Civil War setting but not modern ears. Disney stopped re-releasing it to theaters after 1986. The movie has never been available on home video in the United States, except in bootleg form.
Peter Pan (1953)
While visiting Neverland, the Darling children encounter stereotypical American Indians explaining their skin color comes from blushing after kissing a woman. It's presumed to be the only reason they're not white. A sultry Indian maiden's dance amid leering tribesmen is insulting and creepy.
Lady and the Tramp (1955)
The Siamese cat twins sing with slanted eyes and pidgin diction, in an Asian stereotype common to live action films of the era. Complaints didn't prevent Disney from including a similar feline in The Aristocats (1970), playing piano with chopsticks and singing: "Shanghai, Hong Kong, egg foo yung. Fortune cookie always wrong."
The Jungle Book (1967)
Jazz great Louis Prima was white but spoke in jive cadence, enabling critics to view his role as King Louie, leader of all monkeys, as insulting to African-Americans. King Louie sings to Mowgli: "I want to be like you. Oh yes it's true. I want to walk like you, talk like you do . . . An ape like me can learn to be human, too."
Arab-American advocacy groups were outraged at the film's opening song, Arabian Nights, that included these lyrics describing Aladdin's homeland: "Where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face. It's barbaric, but hey, it's home." Disney amended the lyrics for home video release to "Where it's flat and immense and the heat is intense. It's barbaric, but hey, it's home."
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.