Colour palette trouble

Colour palette trouble

DEBATING STEREOTYPES

SUBTLE UNDERTONES PERHAPS?: A still from 'The Princess and The Frog.'The Princess and the Frog

does not open until the winter, but the buzz is already breathless: For the first time in Walt Disney animation history, the fairest of them all is black. Princess Tiana, a hand-drawn throwback to classic Disney characters like Cinderella and Snow White, has a dazzling green gown, a classy upsweep hairdo and a diamond tiara. Like her predecessors, she is a strong-willed songbird (courtesy of the Tony-winning actress Anika Noni Rose) who finds her muscle-bound boyfriend against all odds.

“Finally, here is something that all little girls, especially young black girls, can embrace,” Cori Murray, an entertainment director at Essence magazine, recently told CNN. To the dismay of Disney executives — along with the black bloggers and others who side with the company — the film is also attracting chatter of an uglier nature. Is The Princess and the Frog, set in New Orleans in the 1920s, about to vaporize stereotypes or promote them?

The film, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, two of the men behind The Little Mermaid, unfolds against a raucous backdrop of voodoo and jazz. Tiana, a waitress and budding chef who dreams of owning a restaurant, is persuaded to kiss a frog who is really a prince. The spell backfires and — poof! — she is also an amphibian. Accompanied by a Cajun firefly and a folksy alligator, the couple search for a cure.

After viewing some photographs of merchandise tied to the movie, which is still unfinished, Black Voices, a Web site on AOL dedicated to African-American culture, faulted the prince’s relatively light skin colour. Prince Naveen hails from the fictional land of Maldonia and is voiced by a Brazilian actor; Disney says that he is not white.

“Disney obviously doesn’t think a black man is worthy of the title of prince,” Angela Bronner Helm wrote March 19 on the site. “His hair and features are decidedly non-black. This has left many in the community shaking their head in befuddlement and even rage.” Others see insensitivity in the locale. “Disney should be ashamed,” William Blackburn, a former columnist at The Charlotte Observer, told London’s Daily Telegraph. “This princess story is set in New Orleans, the setting of one of the most devastating tragedies to beset a black community.”

Of course, critics have also been complaining about the princess. A rumour surfaced on the Internet that an early script called for her to be a chambermaid to a white woman, a historically correct profession. Too much like slavery. And wait: We finally get a black princess and she spends the majority of her time on screen as a frog?

“Because of Disney’s history of stereotyping,” said Michael D Baran, a cognitive psychologist and anthropologist who teaches at Harvard and specialises in how children learn about race, “people are really excited to see how Disney will handle her language, her culture, her physical attributes.” Baran is reserving judgment and encourages others to do the same. But he added that the issue warrants scrutiny because of Disney’s outsize impact on children. “People think that kids don’t catch subtle messages about race and gender in movies, but it’s quite the opposite,” he said.

Donna Farmer, a Los Angeles Web designer who is black and has two children, applauded Disney’s efforts to add diversity. “I don’t know how important having a black princess is to little girls — my daughter loves Ariel and I see nothing wrong with that — but I think it’s important to moms,” she said. “Who knows if Disney will get it right. They haven’t always in the past, but the idea that Disney is not bending over backward to be sensitive is laughable.”

Few people outside the company have seen footage of the movie. Disney executives think people should stop jumping to conclusions about The Princess and the Frog.

Del Vecho said the idea for a black princess came about organically. The producers wanted to create a fairy tale set in the United States and centered on New Orleans, with its colourful past and deep musical history. “As we spent time in New Orleans, we realised how truly it is a melting pot, which is how the idea of strongly multicultural characters came about,” Del Vecho said.

He described Tiana as “a resourceful and talented person” and the rare fairy tale heroine “who is not saved by a prince.” Once the decision was made to make the lead black, he added, “We wanted her to bear the traits of African-American women and be truly beautiful.”

The Princess and the Frog
illustrates how difficult it is to deal with race in animation, experts say. Cartoons by their nature trade in caricatures. Disney can take some comfort in a backlash to the backlash. “This is one of those situations where I am ashamed of the black community,” Levi Roberts said in a YouTube video. “Are we being racist ourselves by saying this movie shouldn’t have a white prince?” Perhaps the final word — for now — should come from somebody who is black and a former Disney animator.

“Overly sensitive people see racial or ethnic slights in every image,” wrote Floyd Norman, whose credits span from Sleeping Beauty to Mulan, in a 2007 essay on the Web site Jim Hill Media. “And in their zeal to sanitise and pasteurise everything, they’ve taken all the fun out of cartoon making.”

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