I have a love-hate relationship with Walt Disney Pictures’s The Princess and the Frog. It was the only Disney film that I can remember following from production to release; I remember when the titular princess was named Maddy before her name was changed to Tiana.
In case it’s not obvious why I was so excited about this film, I’ll state it outright: It was to be the first movie to feature a Black Disney Princess.
The story is good enough; the message (that family and love are more important than material wealth and have the power to change people) is admirable. So, why would I love-hate it? Well, basically because of the trope that I have decided to name ‘Black History Begins with Slavery’.
Think about it. With the first Black Disney Princess, Disney had the opportunity to showcase an African culture/people. Instead, the company decided to set their story in racially segregated (if I’m right; they didn’t really deal with this in the movie, and I [as a Jamaican] don’t know much about American history) New Orleans.
What’s more, they decided to take a classic European (Brothers Grimm, though “parts of it may extend back until at least Roman times” [Wikipedia]) and slap a Black character in there. With Mulan, Aladdin, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Cinderella, etc., they chose to set the stories in the regions and times reminiscent of the one that the story originates from. Not so with Tiana’s story. Would it had been so hard to look for inspiration in ancient African folktales, or even (if they wanted to make it more “contemporary”) find a folktale from the African Diaspora (or Black American ones)?
Thankfully, Disney may have learnt their lesson since then, and that resulted in brilliant works like Moana and Coco. As a Black man, though, I can’t help but mourn (and be a bit annoyed at) the lost opportunity, and be peeved at the fact that the default for a Black Princess was to add to the rhetoric that suggests that Black people in the Americans have no history that extends beyond the Slave Trade.