LIKE A LOT of little girls, 7-year-old Erika Johnson gets all starry-eyed whenever she gazes upon the iconic cartoon princesses. She loves Cinderella, Belle, Ariel and all the others.
But now, the Richmond second-grader is finally about to meet an animated Disney heroine who looks like her. She's Tiana, the beautiful star of "The Princess and the Frog," and it's the first time that Disney artists, who in 1937 proclaimed Snow White as "the fairest of them all," have put a black female front-and-center.
"Our daughters have always known that they are princesses to us," says Erika's mother, Timiza Johnson. "But it's important to have that validity in the pop-cultural images we see. It's important that people all around us believe it."
Opening in the Bay Area on Friday, "The Princess and the Frog" has been blessed with generally favorable reviews. It is also generating plenty of buzz in the black community, which long has knocked Disney for a paucity of multicultural depictions.
After all, it wasn't until 1995's "Pocahontas," with its Native American leading lady, that the entertainment dynasty pegged an animated feature film to a non-Caucasian female. Later came "Mulan" (1998) with a Chinese heroine, and "Lilo and Stitch" (2002), about a Hawaiian surfer girl. Also, 1992's "Aladdin" featured an Arabian princess named Jasmine.
African-Americans, however, mostly have been missing in action.
While some may scoff at the relevance of a cartoon character, Billingslea, who has watched his 10-year-old daughter, Trinity, grow up on Disney Channel fare, believes that this one is a very big deal.
"Images on a TV or movie screen can communicate value, worth and status," he says. "It's a very powerful moment when you can look up at the screen and say, 'That's me.' That's incredibly meaningful — especially when it doesn't happen all the time."
And it's a powerful message for black females in particular, says Karen Bowdre, a University of Indiana professor who specializes in African-American cinema.
"In our culture, the princess — real or fictional — is often seen as someone men would want. Historically, that hasn't been the case with African-American women," she says. "What continues to get valorized, generally speaking, is blonde hair, blue eyes and fair skin."
Set in 1920s New Orleans, "The Princess and the Frog" follows the adventures of Tiana, a strong-willed, hard-working waitress who dreams of owning a restaurant. But her life takes a sudden detour when she is persuaded to kiss a frog who is really a prince and becomes a frog herself.
Tiana is voiced by Anika Noni Rose ("Dreamgirls"), an actress-singer who studied drama at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre. In interviews, she has expressed considerable pride in the role, saying "it will quietly affirm to young brown-skinned children that they are special in this world."
Still, for many black girls growing up with Malia and Sasha Obama in the White House, Tiana's debut likely won't have the same kind of resonance as it does for their moms and grandmothers. That's why some parents, including Antioch's Tracey Watkins-Davis, say they plan to make it a topic of discussion.
"I want her to understand the significance of this and to be aware of how long it has taken for certain things to happen. I want to give her something to think about," Watkins-Davis says of her 7-year-old daughter Zoe, who has spent many Halloweens decked out as a Disney princess.
A hot topic
Tiana's journey to the big screen hasn't been without controversy. Since directors Ron Clements and John Musker began production in 2006, the film has been a hot topic online and elsewhere as commentators have scrutinized everything from the appearance of Tiana's hair and the hue of her skin to the ethnicity of her suitor (Prince Naveen hails from a fictional foreign country) and the choice to set the tale in New Orleans, site of so much heartache for African-Americans post-Hurricane Katrina.
"We knew (the film) was groundbreaking, but early on I think we underestimated the impact it was having on so many people," says Clements. "The wellspring of emotion and passion connected to it has been incredible."
Sensitive to how the film would be perceived by the black community, Disney enlisted a wide range of consultants, including Oprah Winfrey, who voices Tiana's mother. The company also held early screenings for the NAACP and other organizations.
Dee Dee Jackson, national president of Mocha Moms Inc., a support group for women of color, gives the film a hearty endorsement.
"I like how they've made Tiana like Cinderella and Snow White in that she wasn't born into royalty. She has to find her self-worth. She has to find her way," she says "They're teaching while entertaining. It's not all magic and wonder dust."
Mocha Moms Inc. was among the groups that provided feedback to Disney during the making of "The Princess and the Frog," and it is promoting the film via a series of "pink carpet" premiere parties across the country, including the Bay Area.
Jackson, a mother of five in Snellville, Ga., says her 8-year-old daughter, Leah, owns plenty of princess costumes movies and dolls, but has been discouraged from hanging pictures of any characters on her bedroom walls.
"I used to ask her, 'Do you look like Cinderella?'" she says. "I wanted her to identify with something that made her feel good about what she looked like."
Thus, it was a breakthrough moment when mother and daughter saw the film and Leah excitedly declared, "Look mom, she wears an afro-puff just like I do."
Veteran film critic Leonard Maltin, who has written books on Disney films and animation, says Tiana's debut is "a historic moment in the realm of pop culture," but believes most of the film's fans will be color blind.
"As meaningful as this is for many people, it's equally significant that Tiana typically won't be referred to as the 'black' princess except in the media. And that's the way it should be."
To that end, Jackson is convinced that, after the holidays, kids of all ages and races will be "rocking the Princess Tiana gear." Indeed, a visit to the Disney Store in Concord found plenty of patrons drawn to Tiana dolls, pajamas, cooking sets and sparkly green and gold Tiana dresses.
Billingslea, who at times has bristled at what he calls the "Disneyfication of America," nevertheless plans to open up his wallet, as well.
"We're going to be in line for the opening weekend (of the film)," he says. "We need to show Disney that not only is this morally and ethically the right thing to do, but that they can also make a buck off of it. If that happens, they'll be inclined to do more."