To say we were pleasantly surprised would be an understatement. We were, I would say, utterly charmed. The film was fun, sweet, and (to be honest) the best date flick we’ve seen in a while. (Being a notorious softie, I cried at the end.) In terms of racial politics, this is one of the best animated films either of us has seen.
Obviously, our expectations mattered; the film is by no means free of fail. Tiana, the first black Disney heroine, does spend most of the film as a frog (which is just weird); the main villain is a black “witch doctor voodoo man” (and the voodoo!fail is particularly bad), and one minor black character is drawn to resemble racist caricatures.
But we had braced for a film that utterly erased the reality of racism in a vicious age (it’s set in the 1920s, the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan and public lynchings in the American South) and plugged a “blacks must pull themselves up by the bootstraps” philosophy. Instead, we found the film softens but by no means erases the realities of racism and segregation; it clearly contrasts, for example, the mansions of the white characters and the poor black neighborhood in which Tiana lives. A key plot point involves biased white realtors patronizing Tiana. And the strong theme of both hard work and solid family structures came across (to me at least) as respectful of both black history and values.
In fact, Tiana has always over-valued hard work, and her journey involves learning to widen the scope of her life to encompass wishes, romance, dancing—all the traditional trappings of a cossetted princess—and joy. Yet these values, and Tiana’s embrace of them, are clearly presented as integral to her own black community, not imposed from outside.
Afterward the Love of My Life and I talked about the opportunities the film opened up for talking about, say, segregation in both housing and restaurants, or how things go wrong when white characters try to solve black people’s problems without their active participation, with Hypothetical Future Children.
- The most important function of this film is a beautiful black Disney heroine, and on the glamour front it succeeded in spades. Young Tiana is cute as a button, adult Tiana is beautiful, and at all ages her little hair kinks are adorable (and avoid the “white woman with deep tan” problem). The 1920s setting also provides style and costumes that draws on recognizably black sources; as the Love of My Life pointed out, a strong dose of Harlem Renaissance iconography appears whenever Tiana dreams of opening her own restaurant.
- I found Tiana—hard-working, ambitious, and decidedly unromantic—an appealing heroine; she reminded me of Belle from Beauty and the Beast. There’s a lot to be said about how she revises both the traditional Disney princess and reprises contemporary tropes about career women who need the lovin’ of a good man to complete her life.
- The original Disney script called for Tiana to be a maid to privileged white girl Lottie, but in the final film she is a waitress. This was a brilliant change, which not only avoids stereotypes, but brings a wider, more working-class view of New Orleans into the picture.
- It was interesting to watch Disney use a real setting and check off every stop on the tourist itinerary. It’s basically Louisana lite, and it’s a real shame that the music isn’t better or more memorable (I thought the one gospel-inflected number was the best).
- Naveem, Tiana’s prince, is racially indeterminate. He has dark skin, a vaguely-Arab-sounding name, a vaguely-European-sounding kingdom (Maldonia), a vaguely-European-or-Latin-sounding accent, and a Brazilian-American voice-actor. (Though he’s from out of town, he also has the stereotypical “Let the good times roll!” New Orleans personality.) I thought this was a fairly obvious attempt to avoid showing a black/white interracial couple on screen, as the film pairs him potentially with both Lottie and Tiana. Given the emphasis placed on the real-world setting of New Orleans, the fact that he came from a made-up kingdom was somewhat jarring. That said, he was fairly dark-skinned, and it was a pleasure to watch two people of color fall in love.
- Naveem was more Tiana’s co-star than love interest; I really felt like I was watching a romantic comedy with two leads. They both had to transform, literally and figuratively, to make a couple at the end, and Naveem (though he arguably had further to go) made the emotional commitment to Tiana before she did to him.
- This really was a romantic comedy of the they-hate-each-other-now-they-love-each-o
ther variety. It’s just that they meet-cute when he’s a frog.
- I was surprised how much it meant to me to have leads, especially romantic ones, with brown eyes. In real life I meet people with beautiful brown eyes all the time (and spend a lot of time thinking about one particular set of beautiful brown eyes), but visual and literary conventions harp on blue ones. (I’ve been thinking about this a bit with Merlin canon and fanworks lately.) Animation often uses blue eyes as a default. But this film’s beautiful characters had brown eyes, which (along with their accents) helped maintain Tiana and Naveem’s racial identities when in frog form.
- Both the diner in which Tiana works and her lavish dream restaurant are integrated spaces, serving both black and white characters together. This is historically wrong, of course, but Tiana’s dream of opening a restaurant that “all kinds of people” will come to is an implicit reference to integration.
- White characters were largely benevolent (there’s a minor white villain, who answers to Dr. Facilier) and key to the plot but clearly subsidiary and marked as comic relief. I have NO problem with this. (This is actually the second entertainment I’ve seen recently with racially mixed casts in which the black characters carried the drama and white ones provided comic relief; I think the tactic works very well.)
- The chief villain of the piece, Dr. Facilier, is a light-skinned black man with blue eyes. He’s noticeably lighter than both leads. Words cannot say how much of an improvement this is on usual American racial iconography.
- I can’t think of another Disney film with a female lead who faces a male villain. (Pochahontas, maybe? I've blocked out most of my memories of that one. Maybe Mulan, too.)
- Dr. Facilier was super-thin (which was part of what made him creepy). This immediately struck me as an improvement on previous Disney films. *cough*Ursula*cough*
- Also, his sentient shadow was awesome.
- Making Dr. Facilier a “voodoo man”—with insistence on his lack of power, all his abilities coming from spirits—was massive fail. (Yes, Naveem actually calls him a “witch doctor.” Even if Naveem is supposed to be African, this is stupid.) I was particularly troubled by the use of sinister vaguely-African-looking masks to represent evil spirits. There was, however, a positive black voodoo practitioner, Mama Odie, which helped. But I couldn’t help wishing someone would film Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January mysteries (especially Graveyard Dust).
- Unlike virtually all Disney films, Tiana has an intact nuclear family, with both father and mother. (Minor spoiler: Her father dies off-screen as a war hero.) Oprah owns every minute as Tiana’s mother and does a good job sounding like a character and not herself.
- The film passed the Bechdel test with a scene in which Tiana and her mother discuss Tiana's dreams of being a restauranteur. But her key emotional connection is clearly with her father, which I had mixed feelings about.
- The Love of My Life noted several classic black stereotypes (for example, jokes both visual and verbal about big butts) that were re-assigned to white characters. We are both still thinking about this.
- I was struck by the presence of a character who hits every single requirement for a Magical Negro, except that he is clearly raced as white (and ethnic). (It was all the more noticeable because a second helper character exists, who is given both a scene to establish a relationship with Tiana and Naveem and a clear motivation for helping them based on his own ambitions.) I suppose a Magical Honky helping black leads is progress, but I really wish we could retire this figure altogether.
- To my surprise, I found the redneck and Cajun charactes the most troubling parts of the film. (For obvious reasons I’m not a fan of ethnic or rural stereotypes.)
- There’s a moment when it looks like a benevolent white character is going to fix Tiana and Naveem’s problems for them, but fails. This was awesome. In retrospect, I am amazed Disney didn’t go there.
- The film strongly affirms what I would call “princess power”—the power of princesses to make things right by virtue of their sheer princessness (which is of course always tied to being the daughter of a king or wife of a prince). And yet it also bites the hand that feeds it by making its main white character, Lottie, a spoiled little girl who is obsessed with becoming a princess at all costs; she’s a caricature of the princess-craze Disney has made millions creating. Beside her Tiana is much more appealing.
The more I think about this film, the more I think it works on two levels--an audience that doesn't care or think about race can ignore the references to discrimination, but one that does will pick up on a lot, and can use the film to start discussion on a number of important topics in African-American history, especially with kids. But even the former will experience a film in which the characters of color are not only beautiful and glamorous, but central to their own story of love and transformation.
Update #2: And here's my follow-up post