Lack of black characters in children’s films under the spotlight

After the hysteria that greeted Disney's Princess and the Frog, it is worth reviewing the presence and treatment of black characters in children’s’ films. It is not uncommon for a black family to spend two hours watching a film in which they do not feature in any way, shape or form. Here's a list of recent films aimed at a young audience which have been dubbed ‘Black People Free Zones.’ (BPFZ) Tangled, a re-working of Rapunzel, takes place in a society where black people do not exist at all.

In How to Tame Your Dragon the only black character in the movie is the dragon itself. Despicable Me is a BPFZ (although there is a black woman in the waiting room). Gnomeo and Juliet showcases yet another all-white cast. In Megamind there are some black children glimpsed for about 20 seconds in Megaminds nursery and a few in the crowd scenes.

In Chronicles of Narnia 3: Voyage of the Dawn Treader there are some scenes with black sailors in the background but most seem to die before the film is over. Previous Narnia films were entirely BPFZs. In fact you are more likely to see a talking lion/penguin/owl/pig/dog/horse, a blue big- headed alien, a gnome or a robot  portrayed as a hero, than a black person.

Is there any animated movie that is full of only black characters, that features no white people at all that is regularly viewed by all-white audiences who happily pay their money to watch a film in which they do not see anyone who looks like them? Perhaps this is why Disney's Princess and the Frog was so eagerly embraced and why Disney was applauded for its first ever black princess. But there are a still few questions to be answered such as:

  • Why did it take 80 years for them to feature a black princess?
  • Why was their first black princess given a white boyfriend/husband in the original script?
  • Why was she originally portrayed as a maid?
  • Why was it only after an outcry from the African American community that these two features were changed?
  • Why was the prince changed from a white male to the ethnically ambiguous Naveen from Moldovia as opposed to a definitive black man from a real African country?
  • Why was the supposedly non-white Naveen played by a white man from Brazil?
  • Can Disney list the names of its of white princesses over the last 80 years who have ended up marrying black guys or even ethnically ambiguous Naveen-type characters?  (Mulan their only Chinese heroine was given a Chinese partner).
  • Why were the clearly African masks that chased Tianna given such negative characteristics when masks are an important and positive part of African culture and art?

And, just out of interest, why did they make the Lion King with African animals as opposed to African people ? Disney is undoubtedly pleased with the huge profits from its Princess and the Frog while not apologising for its eight decades of racial exclusion, not to mention its years of exploitation of Haitian workers. See Disney's recent behaviour bears similarity to Vogue magazine, who a couple of years ago produced their first issue with all-black models.

They were universally praised for their 'brave stance' on the race question. But it might have been pertinent to ask Vogue why they had not regularly featured black models in the past 20 years. Meanwhile that issue sold out and indeed thousands of  black women went out of their way to give Vogue their money . Vogue was very happy, improved its bank balance but have there been many black models in their magazine since then?

In terms of Disney's Tangled, having made a tokenistic gesture with black princess Tianna, things are now back to 'normal'. In Tangled a white girl with long, straight, blonde hair is the heroine and her hair is the source of her power and beauty. What effect will this have on little girls with curly African hair that, unlike Cat Deeley's does not 'swish'?

What messages does this send to black children when they see fantasy lands where everyone is white? How would white children feel if the majority of films they viewed on the big screen showed happy African families having adventures in lands where Europeans were totally absent ? “Clearly there's always a correlation between the images you are bombarded with and how you feel about yourself,” says Dr. Robert Atwell, president of the Association of Black Psychologists."

So you either get presented with images that stimulate your sense of potential or images that ignore you or are negative." 'In the first stage, the Black child absorbs many of the beliefs and values of the dominant white culture, including the idea that it's better to be white. The stereotypes, omissions, and distortions that reinforce notions of white superiority are breathed in by Black children as well as White.

Simply as a function of being socialised in a Eurocentric culture, some Black children may begin to value the role models, lifestyles, and images of beauty represented by the dominant group more highly than those of their own cultural group.

On the other hand if Black parents are what I call race-conscious – that is actively seeking to encourage positive racial identity by providing their children with positive cultural images about what it means to be black, the impact of the dominant society's messages are reduced.” African Superheroes Day takes place on Sun 27 February 2011.

Tony Warner

About Tony Warner

Tony Warner runs events on the black history of London with guided walks, talks and films detailing the African presence in London. He also works in schools and colleges to improve academic performance and behaviour using history, and has featured in BBC, Teachers TV and Radio 4 documentaries.

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One Comment On “Lack of black characters in children’s films under the spotlight”

  1. In Tangled, you can have a horse that can fence, a chameleon that can communicate with its owner and magic hair, but add a ethnically diverse kingdom is way too farfetched. It is important that we as Africans people turn our backs on such trash and take control of what our children watch. I checked to see if Tangled had any black characters and when I saw it didn’t I refused to take my daughter. We have one television and a recorder. She watches only what her mother and I approve. As far as Disney goes, they won’t get our money.

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