Archive for the ‘film’ Category

Some Thoughts on ‘The Princess and The Frog’

There’s been trials and tribulations,
You know I’ve had my share.
But I’ve climbed the mountain, I’ve crossed the river, and I’m almost there.

— Princess Tiana, “Almost There”

There is much to admire in Disney’s new film, The Princess and The Frog: the lovely heroine’s graceful confidence and common sense, a plot deeply immersed in 1920s New Orleans culture, music, and religion with the art deco flair of an Aaron Douglas painting, and an honest-to-goodness African-American villain to vanquish.

Prof. Susurro at the blog, Like a Whisper, has posted an excellent review of the film that is comprehensive and critically engaging, so I won’t attempt another one here.

What I would like to think through, however, is the story’s self-reflexiveness. I wasn’t prepared for how curiously self-aware Disney’s cinematic coronation of its first black princess would be; the film indirectly acknowledges the role that its own storytellers (and marketing execs) have played in shaping our society’s narrative of beauty, love, and personal fulfillment. It gestures toward the ways that black women have historically felt excluded by “snowy whites” in order to place Princess Tiana on the throne.

Tiana often reminds us, for instance, that “wishing on a star” isn’t enough. She insists on the futility of waiting around for “her prince to come” and save her. These are the core values of Disney’s trademark simulated reality, and yet non-white children have had to work damn hard to maintain their sanity once it is discovered that the enigmatic power of a Sleeping Beauty’s whiteness will forever be out of reach.

So I’m intrigued by Disney’s efforts to use the material culture of Tiana’s environment to distance her from characters like The Bluest Eye‘s Pecola and Sapphire’s Precious. The single brown doll in Tiana’s room as a child is juxtaposed against the suite of her wealthy white friend, Charlotte La Bouff, whose shelves are overflowing with brand new white princess dolls and dozens of unworn princess dresses. Some refer to Charlotte as a parody of the southern belle, but I’m drawn to the idea that her thick accent and spoiled silliness disguises a larger critique of our generation’s relentless and unthinking consumption of the Disney narrative. (Seriously, why is Cinderella on our baby diapers?) Tiana may appear to be too poor and too black to participate in this narrative, but the hard truth is that self-destructive fantasies are all too freely available to those of us who have been taught that what we have – and who we are – isn’t good enough.

Ironically, Tiana illustrates a common strategy for black women’s survival through her toughness, independence, and focus. She tells Prince Naveen that she’s worked hard for everything she’s got. Despite the odds against folks of “her kind of background,” The Princess and the Frog conveys Tiana’s determination by initially undermining the value of being a princess and by turning its heroine and her lover (in another reversal of a “traditional” fairytale) into frogs. This can be problematic, as Prof. Susurro points out, and as one of my girlfriends reminded me, Tiana does eventually call out to that wishing star. She is rescued –  in part by her own efforts – but also by the handsome prince.

In other words, Disney still finds a way to keep it hyperreal.

I’m a bit worried that my exuberance for this film (and not, say, Precious) is hypocritical; both are fantasies that contain their own distortions and truths. My initial impression, however, is that Disney’s strategy is an effective one, given that its representation of black lives in The Princess and the Frog is not only creative, but productively alert to the historical tension between our culture of consumption and the inner lives of African American girls. My daughter loved the film, I should add.  And it feels pretty good to sing along to the soundtrack with her in the car these days.

What did you think?

Are You Planning to See Precious?

GenericticketWill you be seeing the film, Precious?

I’m mulling over the reasons for my own reluctance to embrace Lee Daniels’ new movie and its enthusiastic supporters, so I ask this question without judgment as a way to initiate dialogue.

Buoyed by the moral validation of Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, Precious will surely have a strong impact at the box office when it opens nationwide this month. More favorable reviews appear every day and the Oscar rumors have begun. Then again, one Slate reviewer calls it “uncomfortably close to poverty porn.”

I began reading Sapphire’s Push – the novel on which the film is based – in the bookstore when it was first published in 1996. After about an hour, I left the book on the shelf. Even as I rationalized that I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to process the story of sexual abuse, urban poverty and emotional neglect, I was disappointed in my inability (unwillingness?) to take it in.

I don’t often shy away from the sorrow and suffering that are at the root of many (but not all) African-American literary representations – Frederick Douglass, Native Son, The Color Purple, and The Bluest Eye among others. I poured over the Pulitzer prize-winning Washington Post series Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America, bending back pages in Leon Dash’s account that completely transformed my view of multi-generational black poverty and substance abuse. But in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll acknowledge that I am also a huge fan of Percival Everett’s satirical novel, Erasure, which many consider to be a critique of Push and the urban lit genre’s “verisimilitude.”

So I don’t know. At this point I’m not making any plans to see the film, but maybe I’ll change my mind. Maybe my mind needs changing. Mostly, though, I’m curious about what our expectations are when it comes how black life is represented through art. On Twitter, I was reminded of this prophetic quote from Zora Neale Hurston: The average, struggling, non-morbid Negro is the best kept secret in America. And yet the perceptive @lindywasp offers this insight: It’s always hard to share layers when we know it will be definitive for most. I will see it though. Can’t critique blindly.

Your thoughts?

And while we’re on the subject, what other overlooked, independent films might serve as viewing alternatives to Precious?

Watchmen Baby Love

watchmen-babies3My take on the film, Watchmen, is best characterized by the feeling I get when my daughter gives me a picture she has colored at school. I’m not expecting a perfect or flawless work of art; I’m just so thrilled that such a work exists and I am without words to evaluate it with anything nearing objectivity.

Last Friday afternoon, I spent three hours in the movie theater smiling (and cringing where appropriate) with sheer delight at Zack Snyder’s efforts to translate one of my favorite graphic novels to the silver screen. Since then, I’ve found something to admire in nearly every mixed review of film, particularly those that demonstrate a true appreciate for Alan Moore’s story whether they liked the movie or not. (And many did not.)

At PrettyFakes, Professor Fury opines:

I thought there should have been a credit somewhere that said “Watchmen: Adapted from a 9th-grader’s book report on the graphic novel!” Not a dumb 9th-grader, mind you, just one who had to finish that book report in a hurry and so, in the time honored tradition of procrastinating 9th-graders everywhere, summarized the plot and just decided to ignore all the stuff that was over his head.

Over at WriteBlack, Anika muses:

It’s fair to say that I approached the news of this movie and its ultimate existence with both unparalleled anticipation and dread.
I shouldn’t have worried so much.
No, it’s not Casablanca, or even The Dark Knight, but I didn’t expect it to be.
It was, though, as good a film version of Watchmen as could possibly have been made.

One thing we can all agree on, however: those opening credits were awesome. I’m still waiting to see what Rich Watson has to say over at Glyphs…. But in the meantime, he shares this lovely Wired Magazine interview with Alan Moore.

Here’s my favorite passage:


Wired: You’ve had the double problem of not only the difficulty of [film] adaptation, but also having suffered through some pretty egregious adaptations.

Moore: I’ve never watched any of the adaptations of my books. I’ve never wanted to, and there’s absolutely no chance of me doing so in the future. So I haven’t really suffered through them…

My books are still the same books as they were before they were made into films. The books haven’t changed. I’m reminded of the remark by, I think it was Raymond Chandler, where he was asked about what he felt about having his books “ruined” by Hollywood. And he led the questioner into his study and showed him all the books there on the bookshelf, and said, Look—there they all are. They’re all fine. They’re fine. They’re not ruined. They’re still there. And I think that’s pretty much the attitude I take. If the books are as good as I think they are, then they are the things that will endure. And if the films are as bad as I think they are, then they are the things that will not endure. So, I suppose we’ll see at the end of the day, whenever that is.

Today the graphic novel, Watchmen, is currently the number one selling book at Amazon. (Take that, Steve Harvey!) Moore’s being discovered by a whole new generation of readers, which is so exciting. So I need not worry. It’s fine. It’s not ruined. It’s still here.

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Lost & Found: For the Santa in All of Us


A few links, videos, and other online ephemera from our favorite sites this past week:

  • twitter-16x16TBoH has discovered Twitter! Honestly, though, beyond posting blog updates and reading what others are doing, I still don’t know how to make this high-tech time-waster useful. (Do you really want to know what I’m eating for breakfast?) If you have tweets to share, follow us here!
  • Watch: We finally saw Wall-E on DVD last weekend. Like all Pixar’s films, it is visually stunning. But the story’s message about self-preservation, earth conservation, and a loving, anthropomorphic trash-compacting robot was more captivating that I ever imagined. In other words, I was crying big, sloppy tears by the end.
  • Laugh: Okay, David Alan Grier. You finally got a laugh out of me with this sketch on Black Comic Con 2008. Your opening rant about Death’s Hate Crimes was pretty edgy, too. A sign of better things to come, DAG?

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Prince Akeem for President

Murphy as Prince Akeem

Lately I’ve been wondering how much of my fascination with Senator Barack Obama has been shaped by Eddie Murphy’s 1988 comedy, Coming to America.

Make no mistake, my reasons for supporting the Illinois senator’s candidacy for president are substantive. Education and health care reform are two of the issues that matter most to me. I appreciate the thoughtfulness and intellect that he brings to solving these problems, not to mention his prescient take on foreign relations. Even the way he runs his campaign is impressive.

I won’t pretend, however, that I don’t also have an emotional investment in an Obama administration. I’m hardly a generation removed from Jim Crow segregation. (And I live in a state that still displays the Confederate flag outside the Capitol.)

All of this is part of the network of experiences that constitute my worldview, my “cultural compass” – to borrow a term I heard Michele Norris use recently in a terrific NPR series on race and politics.

But when it comes to visions of Africa, and of black love, leadership, and royal blood in America, my cultural compass often points to, of all places, the imaginary Kingdom of Zamunda. Prince Akeem’s hilarious journey to New York takes a romanticized narrative generally reserved for “whites only” and recreates it as a modern black fairytale, rich with pop cultural parody and historical allusions, bawdy satire, and an all-star cast.

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