Moviegoers everywhere will love Disney's delightful and exciting animated adventure, "The Princess and the Frog." But this groundbreaking film will find a special place in the hearts of African-Americans because of its beautiful homage to black families and to the values which have empowered our people to soar through generations of adversity. Set in 1920s New Orleans, "The Princess and the Frog" is Disney's first feature length cartoon with a black lead, and it celebrates African-American culture as it tells the universal story of a young black woman named Tiana (the Tony-winning co-star of "Dreamgirls" and "The Number One Ladies' Detective Agency") who is trying to reverse the spell that turned her and a vain prince into frogs.
The authentic look of New Orleans is reflected not only in the artists' renderings of architecture and nature (their depiction of the bayou is truly enchanting) but, more importantly, in the spectrum of skin tones and facial features given to the characters. New Orleans' characteristic sounds are portrayed through the speech patterns, accents and slang spoken by the characters (especially Jim Cummings' hilarious and tender turn as a Cajun firefly named Ray) and also through Randy Newman's brilliant songs which alternate between old time jazz, blues, Dixieland, zydeco and traditional black gospel. (Newman got an assist from versatile trumpeter Terrence Blanchard [who also scored several of Spike Lee's movies], zydeco great Terrance Simien and New Orleans icon Dr. John.) Even the film's depiction of Southern folk religion rings true. The villainous Dr. Facilier (voiced with beguiling menace by Keith David) and the wise, countrified Mama Odie (perpetual scene stealer Jenifer Lewis) embody the sinister and benevolent sides of African-based voodoo and hoodoo.
But nowhere is blackness honored more lovingly than in "The Princess and the Frog's" treatment of Tiana and her family. As the movie opens Tiana is a little girl and has accompanied her mother Eudora (voiced by Oprah Winfrey) to her job as nanny and housekeeper to a wealthy white family. Like so many great black women of yesteryear, Eudora performs what could be considered menial work with a grace and warmth that wins the admiration of her daughter. And like many of our mothers, grandmothers and aunties, Eudora is also an entrepreneur; she supplements her earnings by designing and sewing glittery gowns for her employer's spoiled but sweet child, Charlotte.
It's obvious that Tiana has been raised with a sense of pride because she displays no envy toward Charlotte. Neither is she ashamed as the segregated streetcar she rides with her mom rolls out of the palatial Garden District and into the unpaved neighborhood of small, shotgun houses where Tiana's family lives among other working class black folks.
Tiana's dad, James (Terrence Howard supplies the voice), is an archetypal black man: a strong and loving husband and father who, despite working himself to exhaustion on double shifts, is eager to share laughter-filled times with his wife and child. James' teaches Tiana to make gumbo then tells her to invite the neighbors over to share the meal. That touching scene reminds us of the traditional warmth and inter-dependence that kept black communities strong, safe and happy in the past and which needs to be recaptured today.
Tiana's dad inspires her with his dream of opening an elegant soul food restaurant named in her honor. He also teaches her the crucial fact that we've got to support our dreams with a lot of hard work if we want them to come true. That lesson motivates the grown-up Tiana as she works endless hours as a waitress, saving her wages and tips (in tin cans!) for the day when she will finally be able to buy and renovate an empty mill that her dad picked out as the site for his eatery.
Such diligence and commitment to a dream have been cornerstones of African-American success throughout our nation's troubled history. Black folks' willingness to sweat and strain, to endure the degradation of racism and discrimination, to persevere through poverty and to rely on ourselves and each other are the reasons our people have been able to make a way out of no way, over and over again, from the nightmare time of slavery on up to the present day with its unprecedented level of opportunity. "The Princess and the Frog" is by no means heavy-handed about delivering these themes but, like a secret spice that gives a good pot of gumbo that extra-special savor, it's in there and it kicks this new Disney classic up a real big notch!
"The Princess and the Frog" hops into the multiplexes this Friday (December 11). So, you know where you need to be this weekend, right?
Thanks for listening! I'm Cameron Turner and that's my Two Cents.
THINK! IT AIN'T ILLEGAL...YET!
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