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The New Republic


Disney Gets It Right

February 06, 2009

By John H. McWhorter

So Disney’s animated movie is already occasioning offense: although it will feature Disney’s first black princess, her swain will be a light-skinned fellow not intended as black. The setting is 1920’s New Orleans and he is of some sort of non-black extraction.

You know what that means--why can’t he be a dark-skinned, full-lipped brotha? I don’t know, but wouldn’t there be something to be offended about no matter what Disney did here?

Someday Disney or Pixar will have a black heroine with a dark-skinned man--upon which there will be those noting that she isn’t paired with a white, Hispanic or at least lighter-skinned black man and wonder What That’s All About (the increasing cohort of self-professed biracials may well be vocal among this contingent, and who among us could say they’d be wrong?).

Or even now, I assume there will be those who wish that our princess Tiana were chocolate brown with natural, kinky hair (along the lines of those who didn’t like that the Obamas straightened their daughters’ hair for the Inauguration) and wonder What That’s All About.

Complaints about this film continue from those who haven’t even seen it; I need not enumerate the objections here. However, in the vein of acknowledging the positive, I submit the following: this still reveals one of the deftest, most soulfully accurate renditions of a black American in the history of animation.

Look at that configuration of the eyebrows, the lower lip, and the angle of the shoulders pulled back. This is not merely a look of skepticism--it is a perfect rendition of a facial expression and bodily posture local to black American women expressing the kind of skepticism one would have about kissing a frog (or sampling fried grasshopper, or having a shag rug installed, or being gifted with a PT Cruiser).

Yes, it is a “black” demeanor. Picture Beauty and the Beast’s Belle in the same pose with the same expression, or even the warmer, realer Jasmine in Aladdin (whose facial expressions were some of the sexiest ever drawn for a cartoon character). The animators here actually did some thinking and feeling--Tiana is going to be not just painted brown but identifiably black in the cultural sense.

Black American-ness has rarely been captured in animation in worthy fashion. The old Looney Tune Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarves has its moments, but to modern eyes it’s too minstrelly-racist to get past status as a bootleg guilty pleasure. The opening credits of Soul Train had the train “jamming” beautifully--to get a sense of how special this was, think of a flip book you may have seen with one pose after another of some duck walking or whatever, and then imagine drawing one pose after another that busts a move!!!!

Forget Fat Albert (limited, junky animation) and other attempts where the budget allowed no nuance. Disney spent some money, and between complaints about the fact that Tiana will not help us realize all of our fantasies, I hope we will enjoy a Disney princess who will, in line with the browning of the culture I mentioned in my post about hiphop a couple weeks ago, will be identifiably black not just in skin tone (a la Josie and the Pussycats’ Valerie) but in vocal cadence and gesticulation as well.

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