Crowning Moment

ON FILM

On Film

With 'Princess And The Frog,' African-american Girls And Their Moms Now Have Disney Royalty To Call Their Own

December 11, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow , michael.sragow@baltsun.com

A gator blows a jazz horn just like Satchmo. The evening star besots a firefly. The dark corners of 1920s New Orleans overflow with evil voodoo while, deep in the bayou, a blind priestess, Mama Odie, practices some positive swamp sorcery.

With ingredients like that, Dee-Dee Jackson, the Atlanta-based national president of the activity and support group Mocha Moms, says that "The Princess and the Frog" delivers the "Disney pixie dust" that her friends came to expect when fairy-tale heroines kicked off the Disney-animation renaissance with "The Little Mermaid" (1989) and "Beauty and the Beast" (1991).

But to Jackson and a multitude of others, there is one very welcome, big difference.

Tiana, this film's heroine, is black.

The child of a talented seamstress, Tiana learns from her would-be restaurateur dad that cooking should bring people together. Tiana and her hard-working father are the opposite of her mom's best customers, the rotund and orotund "Big Daddy," and Charlotte, his creamy-white spoiled-silly little girl.

Charlotte dreams only of marrying a prince. Tania fantasizes about opening her own restaurant. Guess who ends up with the mysterious, extremely tan Prince Naveen of Maldonia? The only catch is that he and Tiana fall in love as frogs.

Many mothers of color who grew up with Ariel and Belle - and Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella - think that "The Princess and the Frog" is the best Christmas gift that American entertainment could have given their daughters this year.

Nicole Nicholas, the president of the Greater Baltimore chapter of Mocha Moms, has a daughter who, coincidentally, is named Arielle. For Nicholas, it's "really important" for her Arielle "to see images in the media that she can relate to. She loves dressing up like a princess. Now she can see someone like her."

Disney pursued Mocha Moms, which started in Prince George's County in 1997, as a group with the potential to spread positive word of mouth. Mocha Moms draws its membership from stay-at-home mothers and mothers who work full time or part time, or have designed businesses that allow them to work at home. These women are ecstatic that their daughters will be growing up with Tiana, who is as pretty and glamorous as any previous Disney princess but also has an ethic of hard work and self-respect. And if the dusky Prince Naveen has a heritage and ambience that are hard to pin down (at times he looks as if he just stepped off the beach at Cannes) ... well, that's a topic for further conversation, along with whether the voodoo is too glamorous or scary, or Tiana's mom too subservient to her white employers, even if she is voiced by Oprah.

"The story line of the entire movie was phenomenal," says LaShaun Phillips-Martin, the Mocha Moms' Mid-Atlantic regional director, based in Upper Marlboro, who has already seen the film and hosted a "Princess and the Frog Wii" party. "Most of the other Disney princesses don't have to do anything to arrive: They're not struggling to get anywhere. This one has a great message for my girls: Put your nose to the grindstone and get where you need to go."

Fathers also have reacted immediately to the manful way Tiana's dad hands the movie's message down to her. The founder of Daddy's Promise, Ed Gordon, welcomed a full house to "The Princess and the Frog Father Daughter Experience" at the Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church in Washington, D.C., a month ago.

Even academics, usually slow on the uptake when it comes to charting pop phenomena, have moved swiftly to register this movie's influence. Kimberly Moffitt, who teaches media studies in the American Studies department of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says she has a 3-year-old daughter who "seemed to gravitate to early images of Princess Tiana quickly, without pushing or prodding." That observation catalyzed her into organizing a research team with three other scholars intent on gathering and analyzing opening-weekend reactions to the film from African-American girls ages 5-12 and their mothers or female guardians.

"What we're arguing is, come [today], there will never be a time or place when an African-American or black girl will know of a world where there is no princess that looks like them," Moffitt says. Right before and after the movie, girls will answer questions such as "What does a princess look like?"

Their mothers will engage in focus groups meant to "get responses in depth about whether they had conversations [with] their daughters about what it means to be a princess." Moffitt says some mothers have asked to participate precisely because they grew up without any princess who looked like Tiana, or because their daughters go to predominantly white private schools and rarely see reflections of themselves.

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