Despite Black Princess, Disney's Race Record Mixed The Princess and the Frog introduced audiences to Disney's first black princess. Still, some question how far the studio has really progressed in how it treats race on the big screen. Scott Foundas, film editor and critic for LA Weekly, says the studio and special-interest groups missed the big picture.

Despite Black Princess, Disney's Race Record Mixed

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

After months of focus groups and story board revisions, even a name change, the Walt Disney Company finally introduced audiences to its first black heroine with "The Princess and the Frog."

The story centers around Tiana, a young woman in New Orleans who dreams of opening her own restaurant and fulfilling the dream of her late father.

(Soundbite of movie "The Princess and the Frog")

(Soundbite of song "Almost There")

Ms. ANIKA NONI ROSE (Actor): (As Tiana) (Singing) I know exactly where I'm going, and getting closer, closer, every day. And I'm almost there, I'm almost there, people down here think I'm crazy, but I don't care. Trials and tribulations, have had my share, there ain't nothing gonna stop me now �cause I'm almost there.

NORRIS: Tiana is a very entrepreneurial princess. But even with the introduction of Disney's first African-American princess, there are some who question how far Disney has really progressed when it comes to the way it treats the subject of race on the big screen. With us now is Scott Foundas, he's a film editor and critic for L.A. Weekly, and he joins us from Tampa. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. SCOTT FOUNDAS (Film Editor and Critic, L.A. Weekly): My pleasure.

NORRIS: Now, this film was a big moment for a lot of people who grew up on Disney and felt that they didn't see themselves in that long pantheon of Disney princesses, but sounds like you weren't exactly cheering this production. The headline in your piece in The Village Voice was "Disney's Princess and the Frog Can't Escape the Ghetto." What are you unhappy about?

Mr. FOUNDAS: Well, it seemed puzzling to me that after all of this pressure over many years from various groups for Disney to create an African-American princess that when they finally got around to doing it that they decided to put her in Jim Crow era Louisiana, hardly, let's say, a shining moment in the history of African-Americans in the U.S. in terms of their standing in society. So that's sort of a trouble spot to begin with.

But certainly from the time that it was announced in 2006 up until the release, there has been a lot of back-and-forth between Disney and various special interest groups who have really been very attentive watchdogs on the production. And as you mentioned at the start, demanded all kinds of changes to the title of the film, to the profession of the main character, to the main character's name.

And yet, somehow seem to miss the bigger issue of where this film is taking place, how it's distorting history in a sort of very overt way. And I find that surprising not just on Disney's end but on the end of all of these people who did seem to have such a vested interest in making sure that this thing turned out the way they wanted it to.

NORRIS: The anticipation for this film was so great in part because there seemed to be a sense that Disney had a whole lot to make up for. What is Disney's record when it comes to race?

Mr. FOUNDAS: Definitely problematic. Disney, going back to the earliest Mickey Mouse cartoons from the �20s and �30s had references to Al Jolson in blackface, Mickey and at times Pluto imitating Al Jolson, then you move into �40s and you have the feature films "Dumbo" and "Song of the South," both of which are famous or infamous for including any number of somewhat risible African-American caricatures in "Dumbo" in the form of a gaggle of crows who speak in a kind of exaggerated southern black dialect.

(Soundbite of movie, "Dumbo")

Crow #1: Well, looky here, looky here.

Crow #2: My, my. Why, this is most irregular.

Crow #3: Well, I just can't believe my eyes.

Crow #1: They ain't dead, is they?

Crow #4: No. Dead people don't snore, or do they?

NORRIS: These are crows talking to each other onscreen. There was much made of this. NAACP filed a complaint. Many people lodged their complaints specifically and directly to Disney. Was Disney just a product of its times there, is it fair to reach back and criticize them for something like that?

Mr. FOUNDAS: I think that you can say to an extent it was a product of the time. I mean, we're still more than two decades away from the Civil Rights Act at this point. But I don't think that that gives Disney a free pass either. The other problem is that this is not exactly a syndrome that seems to go away over the years. I mean Disney has been criticized for these same issues in films made well after 1964, including "Aladdin" with its depiction of the Middle East.

(Soundbite of movie, "Aladdin")

(Soundbite of song, "Arabian Nights")

Mr. SCOTT WEINGER (Actor): (As Aladdin) (Singing) I come from a land, from a faraway place, where the caravan camels roam, where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face. It's barbaric, but hey, it's home.

Mr. FOUNDAS: So, this kind of accusations has sort of been in ether. And in certain cases, Disney has actually tried to make a kind of reparation by re-editing the films in question like lyrics about the Middle East being a place where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face. That was deleted from the home video edition of the film.

NORRIS: Now, I was going to ask you how Disney has dealt not with the specific examples where they actually went in and changed the films digitally but overall how they dealt with these complaints?

Mr. FOUNDAS: Well, I think one of the way that they dealt with it is sort of by case by case trying to do something as an amends. In the case of "Princess and the Frog," they're giving us their first African-American princess. In the case of "Aladdin," they were giving us the first Arabian princess. In the case of "Pocahontas," they were giving us the first Native American princess. In "Mulan," we had the Chinese princess.

So, they've sort of been making the rounds, you could say. And it's clearly an awareness, I think, on the corporate side about the fact that consumers of Disney products are not exclusively Caucasian audience and it took them a little while to get to that.

NORRIS: As we talk about "The Princess and the Frog," is it possible that we are debating issues that just don't carry the same weight with the target audience for this film?

Mr. FOUNDAS: Well, I think that that's true to a certain extent. I mean I think a lot of people can go see this film and they'll probably enjoy it and their kids will enjoy it and they won't really think twice about it. But I think that, you know, it's the role of criticism to talk about how films function in a broader cultural context. So, you know, I may have my own objections about the movie, the music, the acting these kind of criteria. But what we're talking about here is something that goes beyond, I think, the artistic merits of the film.

And, you know, people who want to say, oh it's only a movie, that's really ignoring the impact that films have on the broader culture, whether it's Clark Gable showing up without an undershirt in "It Happened One Night" and suddenly the garment industry is in panic because sales of undershirts are plummeting or "Top Gun" comes out and suddenly the Navy sees the biggest uptick in new recruits since World War II. These kind of things happen and certainly children watching Disney animated films learn something from them about these characters, and how these characters function in society and what they are entitled to, what they're not, and that makes an impression on an impressionable mind.

NORRIS: Scott Foundas, thanks so much.

Mr. FOUNDAS: My pleasure.

NORRIS: Scott Foundas is a film editor and a critic for L.A. Weekly.

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