Page last updated at 13:00 GMT, Saturday, 28 November 2009

Disney draws its first African-American princess

The Princess with the frog
The film has already created a buzz throughout the United States

By Helena Merriman
BBC News

Over the past 70 years, Disney has given the world eight princesses.

Snow White was the first - and this week, Disney's latest film, The Princess And The Frog, opens in New York and Los Angeles, bringing us the ninth.

But this princess is different from those who went before.

Her name is Tiana and, for the first time in Disney's history of animation, she is African-American.


The voice of Tiana is provided by Tony Award-winning singer and actress Anika Nonie Rose, who says that this new princess will have a big impact on children.

"It's a really wonderful thing for children to be able to look at this princess and say, 'it looks just like my friend - she's a princess too,'" she says.

"It's a long time coming but I'm glad it's here."

The bottom line

Bonnie Greer, the African-American writer and broadcaster, says that while this is an important symbolic step for Disney, it also has commercial motivations.

"Since Disney is always looking at the bottom line, they figured it's about time," she told the BBC World Service.

"It's probably a combination of our new president, a feeling that change has swept the land and thinking about how they can get involved in this change.

Anika Nonie Rose
Anika Nonie Rose says Tiana is intelligent and independent

"Also there is a huge market for this type of film."

Disney points out that films take many years to make and says the initial work on Princess And The Frog predates worldwide awareness of the then-Senator Barack Obama.

Princess Tiana is the heroine and, like her predecessors, she has to learn a few of life's hard lessons before she can fulfil her dreams.

Born to a seamstress, Tiana is gifted with great cooking ability and dreams of owning her own restaurant.

Her story is set in New Orleans and celebrates Mardi Gras with a series of larger-than-life images - from a jazz-loving alligator to a voodoo villain.

Talk show host Oprah Winfrey even has a cameo as Tiana's mother, Eudora.

Studio fears

But finalising the film's tone, plot and characters has not been a simple process, says Disney.

The company says it consulted a wide range of prominent black individuals and organisations to make sure it did not offend audiences.

The consultations resulted in a change in film title and a new name for the heroine from Maddy - which some criticised as sounding similar to Mammy, with echoes of the Deep South - to Tiana.

Even before the film's release, blogs and chat forums have been full of discussions about the film, not all of them positive.

Disney should be ashamed. This princess story is set in New Orleans, the setting of one of the most devastating tragedies to beset a black community
William Blackburn, Columnist

On one site, someone complains that the prince's skin is too light.

Others, such as William Blackburn, writing in the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina, criticised the setting.

"Disney should be ashamed," he says.

"This princess story is set in New Orleans, the setting of one of the most devastating tragedies to beset a black community."

But after having seen the film, many within America's black community have praised it.

Leading members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People gave the film a standing ovation after seeing the film at a screening in Los Angeles last week.

Whether or not people take offence to the film, the Disney machine has already generated huge amounts of publicity.

Scott Mendelson, a film critic based in California, says this will be crucial in helping the film in the crowded pre-Christmas market.

"For better or worse this will be a film that people are going to be talking about.

"This is especially important for a film during the brutal holiday season. Any publicity is good publicity."

In fact, the film is also notable for rekindling the art of hand-drawn animation and hand-painted backgrounds, dropping the more contemporary reliance on computer generated imagery.

But this aspect of the movie is inevitably receiving fewer column inches.

Whatever the debate surrounding the film, for Bonnie Greer, it still sends out an important message.

"When you are a child, what you are shown does affect you and I can remember when I was growing up not wanting to play with black dolls," she says.

"It's a great thing and hopefully it will make some little black girls smile as well as some little white girls."

Now get ready for Princess Tiana dolls, costumes and cards coming to shops near you.

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