Uproar at Disney’s choice of suitor for its black princess, Tiana

The arrival of a black First Lady in the White House might have been greeted with celebration around the world, but the similarly historic debut of Walt Disney’s first black princess has not been received so warmly.

The studio, known for its wholesome and predominantly white family values, has made several changes to its first African-American princess, Tiana, who will star in a new animated film this Christmas entitled The Princess and the Frog, amid accusations of racial insensitivity.

Disney has already changed the profession of the princess (an aspiring restaurant entrepreneur instead of a chambermaid) and name (Tiana instead of Maddy, which critics thought was too similar to “Mammy”, a once-common term for black female slaves in white households). Tiana will be played by Anika Noni Rose, who starred in Dreamgirls, while Tiana’s mother will be played by the talk-show host Oprah Winfrey.

The controversy has intensified after it was revealed that the film would be set in New Orleans and that Tiana would find love with a white prince — well, almost. His skin has been described as olive-toned and he will be voiced by Bruno Campos, a Brazilian actor.

“What? No black prince? What’s up with this?” blogged James Collier on Acting White, an anti-racism website, in a posting typical of the general disbelief among the film’s most vocal black critics. “Perhaps Disney doesn’t want the future mothers of dwindling white America being imprinted so early in their lives with the notion of a black suitor.”

Another blogger, Angela Helm, attracted nearly 3,000 comments on the Black Voices website when she complained that “even though there is a real-life black man in the highest office in the land with a black wife, Disney obviously doesn’t think a black man is worthy of the title of prince”.

It has been more than seven decades since Disney released its first princess movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The company’s “princess division” has eight characters, which generates an estimated $4 billion in revenues annually.

Until now, the line-up of royal heroines, which includes a Native American character (Pocahontas) and an Asian character (Mulan), was missing something: a black woman. And so the decision was made in the mid-2000s — before anyone outside of Chicago had heard of the Obamas — to make Tiana the ninth princess.

According to leaked details, the princess is transformed into a frog after kissing one and has to venture into the mystical bayous of Louisiana to find a cure from a voodoo queen.

Financial expectations are high. Disney’s last two blockbuster princess films, Mulan (1998) and Pocahontas (1995), each generated revenues of more than $300 million. Thanks to the arrival of the Obamas in the White House, Disney hopes that records will be broken.

Executives at the company have tried to play down the controversy. “During the development of any movie it’s common to change titles, character names and story points,” said a source close to the studio who did not want to be named. “The name Tiana evolved with the character. She’s a strong role model for everyone. She pursues the American dream of starting her own business and she does that with a strong work ethic.”

As for the claim that the New Orleans setting and voodoo themes play on black stereotypes, the source said: “New Orleans is an ideal setting for an American fairytale set in the jazz age — it’s all part of the fabric of the story.”

Pulling power

Snow White, 1937 Original worldwide box office (gross): $8.5 million

Cinderella, 1950 $35 million

Sleeping Beauty (Aurora), 1959 $51 million

Little Mermaid (Ariel), 1989 $211 million

Beauty and the Beast (Belle), 1991 $377 million

Aladdin (Jasmine), 1992 $504 million

Pocahontas, 1995 $346 million

Mulan, 1998 $304 million


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