Though I have no recollection of it, the first movie my dad ever brought me to see in a theater was a special 40th anniversary reshowing of the 1946 Disney movie “Song of the South.” If it doesn’t quite sound familiar, that’s because the film has never been released on home video.
It’s never trotted out of the Disney vault because it has become a cultural flash point – with most people agreeing that its characterization of blacks in the post-Civil War South is racist. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has said the film gives the impression of “an idyllic master-slave relationship.” “Song of the South” was made at a curious time in our nation’s long struggle with race – almost 80 years after slavery was abolished, but still well before the Civil Rights Movement.
For millennials like me who are only now gaining political footing in the Age of Obama, it’s both fascinating and appalling to think that “Song of the South” was not only considered acceptable entertainment, it was actually celebrated (the main black actor in the film, James Baskett, won a special Oscar for it).
Now, flash forward to Disney’s latest release, “The Princess and the Frog,” where the studio’s first black princess, Tiana, makes her debut.
Disney doesn’t emphasize Tiana’s race – the only nod to it seems to come when two local businessmen suggest that she might not be up to her dream of owning a restaurant because of her “background.” Perhaps in an age when the president is actually black, the studio is counting on its audience to find it unremarkable that a fictional heroine also happens to be black.
Tiana’s race is also a moot point because she spends much of the film as a frog. But while it never tackles race head-on, the film does juxtapose lightness and darkness throughout. The benevolent characters literally light up their surroundings, while the bad ones often exist only in the forms of dark, lurking shadows.
Though not a poster girl for blackness, Tiana does seem to be a princess created specifically as a challenge to the values of this generation, with its spoiled, entitled reputation. She holds a regular-girl waitress job, and, like a true recession princess, puts every penny away. Whereas “The Little Mermaid” heroine Ariel actually sang an entire number about being unfulfilled despite being “the girl who has everything,” Tiana would never dream of wanting a bunch of stuff to begin with. When an old voodoo woman sings to her that “money ain’t got no soul,” Tiana needs no convincing.
Real-life girls might have trouble digesting this message – I saw the film at a special screening at Burbank’s Walt Disney Studios, where tickets cost $30 each and came with a special princess meet-and-greet after the show.
But if Disney has decided that finally, princess do come in all colors, it still believes that they come only in one size. Tiana’s perfect, Size-0 frame already has some parents worried that they’ll be providing their daughters with yet another message that waif is the only acceptable body size. Tiana does, however, exemplify the progress Disney has made in our ever-evolving portrayals of race on the big screen. My, oh my, what a wonderful day.