Black History Month: The Legacy of Brandy’s Cinderella (1997)

I know I am a bit late with this one as we are now done with Black History Month and starting Women’s History Month for March, but I’ve been writing this for a while and didn’t want it to go unpublished.

Of the twelve official Disney Princesses, only one is black: Tiana from 2009’s The Princess and the Frog. But twelve years before that, a made-for-TV musical really made history: with the 1997 version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, young singer/actress Brandy became the first black disney princess. Her Cinderella was recently brought to Disney+ for streaming, allowing a new generation to appreciate this classic and its legacy. 

The story behind Cinderella is quite interesting, and you can read more about it in Kendra James’s 2017 oral history for Shondaland.  Whitney Houston had been wanting to do a diverse take on Cinderella, and it finally coalesced as part of the re-launch of ABC’s Wonderful World of Disney in the fall of 1997. The producers wanted to use a “color-blind casting” approach, resulting in a black Cinderella (Brandy) and Fairy Godmother (Houston) as well as a Filipino prince (Paolo Montalban) with a black mother (Whoopi Goldberg) and a white father (Victor Garber). Cinderella’s stepfamily also has black and white members. No mention of race is ever made, almost to the point of illogicality, as you can see women of many races trying on Cinderella’s glass slipper, which had clearly been originally worn by a black woman. However, the fantasy nature of the story makes it particularly easy to skim over this and suspend our disbelief.

This Cinderella succeeds on so many levels: it’s fun and funny and beautiful to look at, with songs that hit perfect emotional beats.  It is such a satisfying take on the Cinderella tale that I included it in my Top 5 Versions of Cinderella.  And of course, the representation for BIPOC was hugely important to a generation of little girls who could finally see themselves as a Disney princess, or in a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.

Its legacy can be seen in many ways.  We will soon be seeing another black Disney princess, with Halle Bailey cast as Ariel in the upcoming live action remake of The Little Mermaid.  And another show now streaming owes it a debt as well: Shondaland’s Bridgerton, which cast black actors as members of Regency England aristocracy.

Lady Danbury and the Duke of Hastings in Bridgerton

As a fan of Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series of romance novels, I’ve really enjoyed the Netflix adaptation, and I think the casting decisions are definitely a strength of it.  However, the discussion of race is slightly different than in Cinderella, mainly because there is one.  There is clearly still racism and oppression in this world; part of the plot hinges on the old Duke of Hastings’ desire to continue his line and maintain their place in society.   But I wasn’t sure if the show would address the issue head on until I watched the fourth episode, where Lady Danbury says, “We were two separate societies divided by color until a king fell in love with one of us.  Look at everything it is doing for us, allowing us to become.”

This is a reference to Queen Charlotte, played wonderfully in a greatly enhanced role by Golda Rosheuvel.  The real historical Queen Charlotte has been rumored over the years to have had African ancestry, and while there is really not much evidence of this, it makes a great starting point for a reimagining of Regency England as a more diverse society in a contemporary way.  There are some flaws with this approach to race, as detailed in this piece for the NYT by Salamishah Tillet, but while it is a bit shallow and puts the burden of racial issues on the black characters, it still results in a more representative show and allows some very talented actors to take on now-iconic roles that they might not have gotten in a more traditional casting method.

In general, Bridgerton is more in line with a contemporary approach to casting, called “color-conscious” as opposed to “color-blind.”  The goal of this approach is to acknowledge the historical racial biases and discrimination in the entertainment industry while still striving for representation of BIPOC in media.  Rather than ignore identity, color-consciousness celebrates it.  The poster child for this is the stage musical Hamilton, a play about the white founding fathers that went so far as to put out an open casting call for “non-white actors,” turning American history multicultural.  I think the success of Hamilton, and indeed Bridgerton, which is now Netflix’s biggest show ever, indicates the appeal of this strategy and I’m sure we will continue to see more of it in the future.

After all, as romance author Tessa Dare says, “If the world can agree on nothing else, at least 63 million households can celebrate the Duke of Hastings’ perfectly arched eyebrow.”

Bridgerton's Duke of Hastings' spoon boasts own Instagram page – leaving  fans OBSESSED | HELLO!
Yes, that eyebrow.

Lens-Artists Photo Challenge #127: Precious Moments

Enjoying the first big snowfall

When I started to ponder the precious moments in my memories for this challenge, I began to think through all my travels and the amazing things I’ve seen…but my mind kept coming back to memories of time spent with my kids. More and more I’m using my phone’s camera to try to capture these little moments that I want to remember in future years.

A magical day

Whether it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event like a day at Disney World (pre-pandemic), or just exploring some new-fallen snow in our yard this winter, I will treasure these memories of my kids learning, exploring, and growing. And I often learn so much by seeing things from their perspective!

You can find more precious moments at the original Lens-Artist challenge.

Disney/Pixar Madness

Do you like getting into fights on the Internet over trivial things?  If so, I recommend you fill out this March Madness-style bracket of Disney and Pixar movies and begin alienating your friends with your terrible choices.

I had so much fun doing the Holiday Madness bracket at Christmas, I thought this would be another fun one to do.  As you see, Disney movies are on the left side of the bracket and Pixar movies are on the right, meeting in the final.  As with all brackets, the seeding is the most important factor in determining the outcome, and I think the seeding here is a bit flawed.  I’m not really sure how it was done, and I feel like the starting matchups could be better, but I’m too lazy to figure out my own, so we’ll go with this one.

disneypixar

I really tried to be objective instead of just picking my favorites.  On the Disney side, I knew it would come down to those top four, and then I struggled to pick among them.  I admit I probably let some nostalgia sway me, because The Lion King is my favorite Disney movie.  I’m confused by the inclusion of The Nightmare Before Christmas instead of, say, The Rescuers Down Under or Atlantis if they wanted to keep it around the Disney Renaissance period, or Wreck-It Ralph if going more contemporary.

On the Pixar side, Up and Wall-E are my favorite Pixar movies, but they didn’t make it very far.  I really struggled with the seeding: Finding Nemo vs. Inside Out and The Incredibles vs. Wall-E do not seem like first round matchups to me.  I also admit I have not seen Coco or Cars 2 (plus I fell asleep during the original Cars).

But overall, I think my “Elite Eight” are a pretty good representation of the best of Disney/Pixar.  Now here’s your chance to tell me how wrong I am!  What would your picks be?

Kaguya-hime got robbed

My quest to see all the 2014 Oscar-nominated animated movies concludes with:

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Image result for tale of princess kaguya us poster

Studio Ghibli

Isao Takahata, director

Viewing Source: local public library Blu-ray

 Late one weeknight evening, I sat down to watch The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, thinking that as an animated film it was likely to be short (the others are all around 100 min) and I could still get to bed at a decent hour.  I popped in the disc, started the movie, and then checked the case for the running time: 2hrs 17 min.  Oops.

Yet when I finished the movie, I looked at the clock incredulously.  It certainly could not be that late, could it?  I was so engrossed in the movie, it seemed to pass too quickly.

I am a fan of Studio Ghibli, so I was expecting to like Kaguya.  My only hesitation was that this movie is not by Miyazaki, but by Isao Takahata, who’s best known for his traumatizing war movie Grave of the Fireflies (which I’ve never seen).  Still, Kaguya now ranks among my favorite Ghibli films, giving even My Neighbor Totoro a run for its money.  For me, it was a nearly perfect movie.

Kaguya (or Kaguya-hime no Monogatari as it’s titled in Japanese) is based on a Japanese folktale called “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” about an old man who discovers a tiny, beautiful girl in a stalk of bamboo.  I had not read the story until after I saw the movie, but the movie follows the original tale fairly well, with the beneficial addition/expansion of Kaguya’s childhood friend Sutemaru nii-chan.

Kaguya is a very complex, emotional movie, and I’m not too sure that most American kids would really love it. It’s imbued with Buddhist philosophy and imagery, which I found thought-provoking but others may find confusing. The gorgeous artwork and music are used very effectively to help convey emotion, but the story is not really a happy one.

Did I mention the animation is gorgeous?  You should see it for that alone.  Its sketchy watercolor style is very different from anything else on the nomination list, different even than other Ghibli films.

I can’t comment on the quality of the English dub; I only had time to watch one version, and I always prefer subtitles.  If you are able, I encourage you to watch it this way as well.  The movie is very Japanese, and hearing it in its native language may help you appreciate its tone.

I began this series of posts with the premise that animated movies are not just for kids, and I think this movie really underscores that point.  As you can infer from the title of this post, if it had been up to me, I would have given the 2014 Oscar for Animated Feature Film to Kaguya.  I hope you will all enjoy this beautiful movie as much as I did.