As I have noted in earlier posts, whilst in Tanzania we spent a good amount of time with the orphans and schoolchildren that lived at the convent. The school library had a suprizingly decent selection of movies and we would often screen movies with the kids. Our group would decide which movie to watch, and one time we watched the Disney Princess and the Frog which everyone else said they loved. I had never seen it before, but did want to see it since I had heard so much about how it was incredibly racist (like Disney tends to be with animated films not set in generic Europe.) It was worse than I thought. For one thing it had every single thing stereotypically associated with New Orleans and Louisiana I can think of short of bared breasts, Katrina, and oil spills. Gumbo, frogs, jazz playing alligators, Mardi Gras, Voodoo, the bayou, and even more was just crammed together in the most contrived way imaginable. That’s not even getting into the “racist” part of it.
Much like Aladin and Mulan, the racism lies in its depiction of the primary antagonist. This film taking place in Louisiana Disney predicatably chose to make the villian, Dr. Facilier a top hatted “Voodoo Man.” Like any other depiction of voodoo in mass media, Dr. Facilier is shown as black magician in leage with evil spirits and scamming innocent people. What is so troubling about that? Well Voodoo (also spelt as vodou or vodun) is a living religion that along with the related faiths of Santeria and Cadomble claim several million adherents on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet the only time it is ever seen in the media is a dark, sinister cult practiced by dirty con artists. These misrepresnations have their origins from the fear many Westerners felt after the Haitian Revolution, and became cemented in popular imagination when Hollywood started attempts to depict voodoo following the Marine Corps intervention in Haiti during the 1920s.
What specifically was wrong? Let me explain. For one thing Dr. Facilier wears a feathered tophat and torn tail coat, with a shirt that is too small and a claw necklace. In reality tophats are strictly associated with spirits of the dead, and are worn with full formal dress because the death spirits are supposed to be wealthy; yet most pop cultures portrayals show all “witch doctors” wearing them along with generally primitive looking attire. No specific deities were named, probably because Disney didn’t actually do any research and couldn’t even contrive to use a very basic spirit like Samedi, Damballah, Legba, Erzulie, or Shango (it would be like omitting Zeus et al from Hercules). No Catholic iconography appeared either: this is a huge error since slaves who brought their religions from Africa were forced to disguise their spirits as Catholic saints, usually ones that are remotely similiar. Instead just generic “friends from the other side” were used, and they looked more like poorly made Hawaiian Tikis than African entities. Most importantly they clearly had voodoo confused with Palo/Nganga, a seperate religion which is notorious for having unregulated priests who will do anything to make money.
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After the movie was done and the kids left someone on our team remarked that she was worried that maybe the movie might have scared children, since “voodoo is still practiced in some tribes in Tanzania.” Except that it totally isn’t. It’s about as prevelant in Tanzania as Shinto is in India. Complete absent if you were wondering. I corrected her and said that voodoo doesn’t exist in Tanzania or anywhere in East Africa, and that it only exists in West Africa. Actually that’s not even true, it really only exists in Haiti, Louisiana, and a few other Francophone areas, what they have in West Africa is Vodun has differences. I went on to say that its clear Disney didn’t do any research, and when another asked what made me think that I gave them an answer that was sufficiently watered down from what I have been posting. That individual informed that “there’s different kinds of Voodoo, and what they had in the movie is how it is in Louisiana.” Um no it isn’t, and besides in Louisiana it has been completely sold out by the tourist industry and weird white people who like stealing nonwestern religions. I didn’t say that, tactful Tom that I am. After I was done explaining what was wrong, yet another said that “most people wouldn’t know the difference.” I even attempt to explain that the movie was racist, since some people don’t even see racism in Peter “What makes the Red Man Red” Pan.
For further reading: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louisiana_Voodoo