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The Princess and the Frog movie: Disney’s progress on race

Tiana, the main character in ‘The Princess and the Frog,’ shows how far Disney has come since the 1946 film ‘Song of the South.’

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Though I have no recollection of it, the first movie my dad ever brought me to see in a theater was a special 40th anniversary reshowing of the 1946 Disney movie “Song of the South.” If it doesn’t quite sound familiar, that’s because the film has never been released on home video.

It’s never trotted out of the Disney vault because it has become a cultural flash point – with most people agreeing that its characterization of blacks in the post-Civil War South is racist. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has said the film gives the impression of “an idyllic master-slave relationship.” “Song of the South” was made at a curious time in our nation’s long struggle with race – almost 80 years after slavery was abolished, but still well before the Civil Rights Movement.

For millennials like me who are only now gaining political footing in the Age of Obama, it’s both fascinating and appalling to think that “Song of the South” was not only considered acceptable entertainment, it was actually celebrated (the main black actor in the film, James Baskett, won a special Oscar for it).

Now, flash forward to Disney’s latest release, “The Princess and the Frog,” where the studio’s first black princess, Tiana, makes her debut.

Disney doesn’t emphasize Tiana’s race – the only nod to it seems to come when two local businessmen suggest that she might not be up to her dream of owning a restaurant because of her “background.” Perhaps in an age when the president is actually black, the studio is counting on its audience to find it unremarkable that a fictional heroine also happens to be black.

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