ENTERTAINMENT RE-ORIENTED: TWO STEPS FORWARD, ONE STEP BACK: People of Color Dancing at the Box Office This Winter

This holiday season’s top box office earners include a surprisingly large number of films about people of color. The controversial “Precious,” a gritty story about an obese, pregnant black teen, cracked the top 10 and “The Blind Side,” an “inspirational” story about a rich white lady who takes in a troubled, black teen, and turns him into a football star, overtook the much more high profile “Twilight: New Moon” — which itself features a Native American character who, to my eyes, is getting about as much publicity as the lily-white leads — for the top box office spot this past weekend.

While I haven’t seen any of those films, they all seem problematic, even from the trailers. Besides having been called violently anti-feminist, “Twilight” seems to have some gender issues that intersect with race. While the white male vampire lead is definitely portrayed as a heartthrob, he’s also a little androgynous and keeps his clothes on in all the publicity material I’ve seen. The Native American supporting character, who is surprisingly prominent in the marketing (at least here in the Bay Area), is also way more sexualized. He and the other Native American characters are werewolves. In most of the ads I’ve seen, they appear shirtless, wearing only jean shorts, and looking a lot like the “hot cops” from “Arrested Development.” And while the main white girl does have feelings for the Native American werewolf character, she winds up with the white vampire guy (spoiler!) in the end.

As for the “The Blind Side,” unless the other 125 minutes are radically different from the three contained in the trailer, it’s the kind of run-of-the-mill race story that focuses on individuals overcoming adversity and discovering themselves, without really engaging larger societal problems. Sample dialogue from trailer: rich white socialite to rich white main character lady, “You’re changing that boy’s life.”

Reply, “No, he’s changing mine.”

The two mainstream films that center around people of color that I have seen this season, “Ninja Assassin” and “The Princess and the Frog” are also a mixed bag, and they have a lot in common. Both are essentially cartoons that I recommend at the end of the day, despite their problems.

“The Princess and the Frog” marks a couple of milestones for Disney, it’s a return to 2-D animation and it’s the first film in the Walt Disney Animated Classics cannon to have a black lead character. As such, it’s rightfully being held under a microscope for racial content and a number of concerns have been raised, some of which apparently inspired Disney to make changes before the film’s completion.

The media giant has had a history of fumbling its previous attempts at diversity — from brutal Arab stereotypes in “Aladdin,” Huns depicted as a race of inhuman ogres in “Mulan,” to the entire film “Pocahontas” from start to finish.

“The Princess and the Frog,” in the form I saw it in last week, centers on Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), a driven young black waitress living in the Jazz Age New Orleans, pulling double shifts while dreaming of owning her own restaurant. Meanwhile, a pampered and racially ambiguous prince, Naveen (Bruno Campos) of the fictional country, Maldonia, recently cut off from his parent’s money, is in looking to marry into money. He is discovered by a shady Hoodoo practitioner, Dr. Facilier (Keith David), who tricks the vain prince and turns him into a frog as part of a ploy to obtain a fortune from Charlotte La Bouff, the spoiled, daughter of a sugar mill best friend of Tiara’s. Naveen, as a frog, runs into Tiara and, assuming she is a princess, convinces her to kiss him, so that he may transform back into a prince. Instead, she is turned into a frog herself and the two of them must go in search of a Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis), a “Voodoo fairy godmother” for help.

Politics aside, the film is pretty incredible. While “Lilo and Stitch” which took some risks and became (in my opinion) Disney’s best picture yet, “Frog” settles for rehashing ideas from older films; however, though the characters and plot are familiar, the film’s formulaic schmaltz is dished out masterfully. The leads are charming and have a nice chemistry, the inevitable animal sidekicks are genuinely amusing and the villain is compellingly sleazy, yet debonair. The voice cast is also uniformly excellent, but the real beauty is in the animation. From big, grand elements like an art deco poster that comes to life to Charlotte’s manically rhythmic movement, to the eerie autonomous shadows of Dr. Facilier’s “friends on the other side,” or small details like a frog’s curtsey, or a procession of fireflies illuminating the surface of a bayou, “The Princess and the Frog” is a reminder of the unique power of hand-drawn animation.

As for the racial content, I have yet to form a strong opinion. I remembered watching “Aladdin” as a kid and, though it was plagued with many, many problems, and the title character was light skinned and ambiguous looking, he didn’t have blonde hair, blue eyes or pink skin, and he was poor, so, therefore, I felt a connection to him that I didn’t with many of the other characters I saw on screen. And since Disney’s animated films are big, heavily marketed productions that come around once a year, feeling somehow included in that, even in highly problematic ways, gave me a feeling of legitimacy in society. Not that Disney should be applauded. Capitalism essentially dictates that the only people Disney cares about are its shareholders, so if we are looking to these films for clues as to the Walt Disney Co.’s “values,” then we’re really barking up the wrong tree — (though I do hold current chief creative officer, John Lasseter, in high regard for, among other things, making the merchandise unfriendly Pixar film “Up,” in direct conflict with the company’s bottom line).

The biggest issues others have raised are the race of the prince, ahistorical depictions of New Orleans at the time and the inclusion of voodoo and other stereotypical elements. The questions raised are valid, what is more progressive: an interracial relationship or a black prince? Historical fidelity or empowered characters? Culture-blindness or inclusion of superficial elements of New Orleans culture, such as beignets?

The truth of the matter is it would be better to have more films made by and depicting people of color. If white people don’t like the way white people are depicted in “Rapunzel,” the next in Disney Animated Classics’ line, they can just wait for the “King of the Elves” (adapted from a Philip K. Dick story?!?) the following year — or they can rent any of the numerous back catalogue titles.

Also, I was somewhat troubled by the film’s mixed-messages. The audience is told, “all you need is love,” yet Tiara’s story ends with her quite wealthy and living in the decadent lifestyle you see in Barbie play-sets (coincidence?). And, if Charlotte and Tiara are such good friends, then why doesn’t the wealthy debutante share her fortune? Moreover, why doesn’t Tiara resent her for not doing so? And while Tiara is depicted as strong and independent, it isn’t until she teams up with Naveen that she actually builds her dream.

Most of all, the film’s overall message, other than the usual “be yourself” stuff, is “if you work hard enough you can achieve anything.” In a country where there are significant barriers to class mobility and privilege is actually what gets many people to their position in society, the messages seems more than a little unfair — particularly in the middle of a deep recession and in a film aimed at black young people, who have additional barriers to economic success.

Ben Hamamoto is a writer born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He currently edits Nikkei Heritage, the National Japanese American Historical Society’s official magazine.

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