Movie Mom

Movie Mom

Disney’s First African-American Princess

posted by Nell Minow

The Disney Princesses, each the star of her own movie, are now a team and something of a marketing juggernaut. They have transcended their individual stories and now appear together in a wide range of merchandise. And now Snow White (born a princess and married to a prince), Cinderella (married a prince), Little Mermaid Ariel (born a princess and married a prince), Belle (married a prince), and Sleeping Beauty (born a princess and married to a prince) will be joined by the first African-American princess, Tiana.


Disney has had non-white female lead characters before — Mulan (not a princess or married to a prince), Jasmine (born a princess), and Pocahontas (a Native American equivalent to a princess). But Tiana is the first African-American to star in her own fairy tale movie, based on a combination of a traditional story, a recent novel, and Disney’s own magical transformation. According to The Washington Post’s Neely Tucker,

It draws inspiration from an 18th-century fairy tale from the British Isles, and “The Frog Princess,” a 2002 teen novel from Maryland writer E.D. Baker. Disney transferred the story to 1920s New Orleans and changed her name, race and almost everything else.

In the Disney version, Tiana is a young waitress and talented chef who dreams, like her father, of owning her own restaurant. She eventually kisses a frog and is transformed into one. She must journey into the dark bayou to get a magical cure from a good voodoo queen. She is aided by a goofy firefly and a trumpet-playing alligator. The frog turns out to be handsome Prince Naveen, from the far-off and fictional land of Maldonia.

The stills released by the studio show Tiana in full princess regalia: a powder-blue gown, tiara and hair in an elegant upsweep.

Tony Award winner Anika Noni Rose voices Tiana. Other parts are played by Oprah Winfrey, John Goodman, Terrence Howard and Keith David. The music is by Oscar winner (and New Orleans veteran) Randy Newman. It is directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, the same team behind “Aladdin” and “The Little Mermaid.”

Tucker writes about the sensitivity involved in this image, as have all of the Disney heroines, which have been criticized for ethnic and gender concerns. At one time, he writes, the character was called Maddy, short for Madeline, but it sounded too much like “a slave name.” The love interest is of indeterminate race.

Prince Naveen, for the record, is neither white nor black, but portrayed with olive skin, dark hair and, need we state the obvious, a strong chin. The actor who plays him, Bruno Campos, hails from Brazil.

Tiana is a fantasy figure and so it is not surprising that she fits an idealized and doll-friendly image. But we have come a long way from the racially insensitive images in past films like “Dumbo,” “Peter Pan,” and “Song of the South.” I appreciate the care and yes, love, that have gone into creating this character and I am really pleased to have what appears to be a very strong and beautiful role model added to the princess line-up.

  • bk100

    Disney has come along way with gender and racial stereotypes and I am glad about their decision to have a female African American lead character. However I wish that Disney would reconsider not releasing Song of the South which I believe given it era and after viewing it, not to be racist.

  • Nell Minow

    Thanks, BK. I agree with you about “Song of the South” and I think there is a way for them to re-release it with some context to address the issue directly. I understand that it is available outside the US, so maybe we will catch up.

  • Iris Alantiel

    Just a note from someone who watches too many Disney movies – Ariel was a princess before she married a prince. Her father, King Triton, is king of the ocean.

  • Nell Minow

    Of course you are right, Iris! (You have a very lovely mermaid-ish name.) I will make the correction. And a reminder — 10 corrections and you get a free copy of my book so you only have nine to go!

  • jestrfyl

    All of this aside, I hope Disney has learned something important from its partnership with Pixar. That is – Story first! All of these other considerations are good and careful calculation is required for any animated work. But without a good story this entire project will end up with skinned knees, bruised arms, and a bloody nose. Disney animation cannot afford that. I hope they have stepped up their game and written a good tale that will make the princess worthy of the hype that is sure to come. A bad story will waste all of the great art in a film, but a great story will allow people to forgive any of the gaffs and foibles that might result from bad art.

  • Nell Minow

    You are right as always, jestrfyl! I am encouraged that Pixar folks are now supervising the Disney films, too. It will be a challenge here given the big changes they are making to the source material. They are also doing a Rapunzel movie, and I will be curious to see what they do with that story.

  • Your Name

    Fantastic!! It is “GREAT” to see that Disney is finally thinking outside the box and including other ethnic groups. I am “THRILLED” by this concept and delighted that my daughter (6yr old African American) will get an opportunity to see an African American Princess through the world’s industry giant-Disney. First Obama as President and now this………..we truly are becoming the “UNITED” States of America. My suggestion would be to consult with HBO Happily Ever After-Fairy Tales for Every Child series. They managed to capture the ethnic and fairy tale concept “Beautifully”. Best of luck to Disney, Pixar and all involved in this endeavor. I can’t wait to see this production in the theatres.

  • Nell Minow

    Thanks so much for a great comment and for mentioning the HBO Happily Ever After series — one of my favorites! I am so glad you wrote and hope you will comment often. Blessings to you and your daughter — she is lucky to have a parent who understands the importance of this and looks out for those positive images that reflect the best of us back to ourselves.

  • kathie

    this picture is my sister’s favorite picture theres bueaty in that picture.

  • Nell Minow

    Thank you, Kathie! I had a presentation about upcoming films and DVDs from Disney representatives today and was thrilled with what they told me about this movie. I can’t wait to see it.

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