‘The Princess and the Frog’ gave black girls their first taste of Disney royalty 10 years ago, the film starring Anika Noni Rose opened to praise and criticism

Elizabeth Dampier was living a fairy tale. It was Nov. 15, 2009, and the 10-year-old from Mississippi was walking the red carpet at the world premiere of Walt Disney’s animated musical The Princess and the Frog.

The fifth grader beat out hundreds of girls to land the gig voicing the young Tiana, Disney’s first animated African American princess. It’s a role that would become synonymous with Tony Award-winning actress and singer Anika Noni Rose, who played the older version of Tiana. Besides Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas (1995), and Mulan (1998), characters of color were nowhere to be found in the vanilla worlds of Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, and Belle. To mark the long overdue moment, the House the Mouse Built opened its Burbank, California, studios to the public for a special screening, the first time it had done so since the 1940 showing of the classic Fantasia.

A decade after that 2009 premiere, Dampier, now 20, is still marveling that she was a part of the game-changing moment.

Actresses Breanna Brooks (left) and Elizabeth Dampier (right) attend the world premiere of Disney’s The Princess and the Frog at Walt Disney Studios on Nov. 15, 2009, in Burbank, California.

Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images

“I couldn’t wait to go back home and tell everyone about the premiere,” recalls the former child actor, who is now a beauty and fashion blogger. “Everyone [was] standing up and cheering for the entire length of the credits. It was an amazing experience, but I did not realize that [we were] actually making history. I honestly didn’t realize it until the movie came out.”

Based on the Brothers Grimm story The Frog Prince, Walt Disney’s 49th animated film was released widely on Dec. 11, 2009, amid deafening buzz. Not only was The Princess and the Frog the studio’s first hand-drawn movie in five years after Disney laid off most of its traditional animators before switching to CGI, it was its first animated picture since 1946’s offensive Song of the South (the stereotypical Reconstruction-era Uncle Remus and the black help existed only to bring happiness to a white family living on a Georgia plantation) to feature an African American character.

Directed by Disney stalwarts Ron Clements and John Musker, The Princess and the Frog is set in a 1920s black community in New Orleans. Tiana, a poor yet determined young woman, dreams of opening her own restaurant and serving her late, beloved father’s signature gumbo. Soon the ambitious waitress meets a talking frog named Naveen (Bruno Campos), who claims to be a prince from the fictional country of Maldonia. He’s been cursed by the villainous voodoo witch doctor Dr. Facilier, played with velvety aplomb by veteran actor Keith David (Gargoyles, Todd Macfarlane’s Spawn, Ken Burns’ The War, Greenleaf), who could make a greasy fast food receipt sound like a Langston Hughes poem.

Along with its throwback Disney musical numbers, Anika Noni Rose (Princess Tiana) was a major reason for the film’s success. Tiana is seen here with Prince Naveen (voice: Bruno Campos).

Walt Disney Co./courtesy Everett Collection

“There is no way I would ever, ever, ever kiss a frog. Yuck,” bristles Tiana.

But of course she does. That’s when the old fairy tale trope is turned on its head as Tiana is transformed into a frog. Time is of the essence as the pair rushes to upend Dr. Facilier’s evil spell, get married and live happily ever after. With a Roaring ’20s jazz age soundtrack written by Grammy and Oscar winner Randy Newman, syrupy vocals from Dr. John, and a deep bench of A-list voice talent headed by Oprah Winfrey, John Goodman, Jenifer Lewis, and Terrence Howard, the movie would go on to earn $267 million globally at the box office and receive three Academy Award nominations, including two for Newman’s songs.

Along with its throwback Disney musical numbers, Rose was a major reason for the film’s success. The Bloomfield, Connecticut, native beat out the likes of Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson and Tyra Banks to score the groundbreaking part. For many, she proved to be a revelation.

“Anika has long carried big projects,” said Michael-Leon Wooley, the voice of fan favorite Louis the Alligator, speaking from his New York City apartment where he has a statue of the gregarious trumpet-blowing reptile on top of his grand piano.

“Anika has always been able to handle pressure. She was the lead in Caroline, or Change,” for which she won a Tony Award in 2004. “She brought a lot of grace, dignity, and humor to Princess Tiana, which has become such an iconic character.”

The film had an immense impact on children, especially black girls, who finally saw themselves as a Disney princess.

Walt Disney Co./courtesy Everett Collection

Wooley met Rose on the set of the 2006 Oscar-winning film Dreamgirls. Two years later, the pair would find themselves together again at Los Angeles’ Disney Studios recording Princess’ show-stopping number “When We’re Human.”

“That was a great day,” Wooley recalled.“I knew it was a great number because Randy Newman was writing the music. I remember me, Anika and Bruno [Campos] were in the studio together to record ‘When We’re Human.’ When you are working with that level of talent you have to bring your A game. I don’t think I talked the day before. That’s how much I rested my voice!”

Critic Roger Ebert praised the film, marveling at lead animator Mark Henn’s “lovingly hand-drawn animation that proceeds at a human pace, instead of racing with odd smoothness. I’m just gonna stand here and let it pour over me.”

But the project was not without its detractors. For starters, Tiana spends much of the film as a frog. The racially ambiguous Prince Naveen sparked debate about whether Disney was ready for a black prince. Some writers took exception to the fact that the story takes place in the racially segregated Jim Crow era at a time when interracial marriage was outlawed.

In a 2010 essay published by the Journal of African American Studies, educator Sarita McCoy Gregory summed up the ambivalence of some observers: “Disney’s attempt to render blackness visible and human must be read against its objective of maintaining whiteness in the movie. Food and jazz share the burden of serving as metaphors for colorblindness and black humanity, leaving the audience with a feeling of accomplishment that they have moved beyond race in their acceptance of Tiana as a princess.”

From left to right: Peter Del Vecho, Marlon West, Bruce W. Smith, Quvenzhané Wallis, Jenifer Lewis, Anika Noni Rose, Michael-Leon Wooley, Randy Newman, Rob Edwards, Ron Clements and Keith David attend The Academy Celebrates The Princess and the Frog 10th Anniversary at Samuel Goldwyn Theater on Sept. 5 in Beverly Hills, California.

Photo by Timothy Norris/Getty Images

The criticism did not take away from the immense impact the film had on children, especially black girls who finally saw themselves as a Disney princess. “The fact that she was the first black princess meant to me that she was going to be, like, influence for other kids,” said one child during an opening night screening covered in a 2009 NPR segment. “I like that the princess was black,” exclaimed another.

Wooley can attest to the movie’s legacy. “I judge a big singing contest here in Los Angeles,” he said. “There were a few black girls ranging from 16 to 18 in the competition who were amazing. When I told them that I was Louis the Alligator, they all had the same reaction … They burst into tears. And I love that.”

During a 10th anniversary screening of The Princess and the Frog in September at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, the film’s cast and crew reunited for a Q&A session. Hosted by self-described “superfan,” actress Quvenzhané Wallis (she was 6 when the movie dropped!), the event was a celebration of the film’s enduring reach.

Sitting onstage alongside the actors and directors were producer Peter Del Vecho, head of effects Marlon West, supervising animator Bruce W. Smith and screenwriter Rob Edwards. “You want to root for her,” said Edwards of the universal appeal of the strong-willed Tiana. Rose held back tears as she explained to the audience the responsibility she accepted in taking on such an important role.

“Never once did I feel, ‘Oh, my God I can’t believe I have to do all this,’ ” she said of the myriad auditions and early-morning plane flights she endured to get the part. “Never once did I feel I was not where I was supposed to be. Never once did I feel like this girl was not me.”

But The Princess and the Frog nearly got off to a disastrous start. When Disney leaked some concepts from the film in early 2007, there was immediate backlash. Among the grievances was the lead character’s original name, Maddy, which for many African Americans came too close to the offensive term “mammy.” Fans and media outlets also balked at Tiana’s original occupation as a maid to a rich white family.

Since the 2009 release of The Princess and the Frog, a lot has changed. More than ever, movie studios are recognizing the importance of empowering women and people of color to tell their stories.

Walt Disney Co./courtesy Everett Collection

The directing team of Clements and Musker had worked on huge titles such as The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992), Hercules (1997), and, later, Moana (2016). The two white animation vets understood that The Princess and the Frog needed a shot of celebratory black culture and nuance. The pivotal casting of Winfrey as Tiana’s mother Eudora in September 2008 got the ball rolling.

The directors then brought in Smith, creator of the animated Disney Channel series The Proud Family, to assist with character animation and voice. Edwards, a veteran television and film writer whose credits include A Different World, In Living Color, Roc, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and the Disney feature Treasure Planet, was also instrumental in injecting much needed authenticity. Both played roles in establishing the unmistakable black hues, contours and vocal inflections of each character, from their dialogue to the bombastic Broadway-style performances.

Rose’s character struts infectiously on the high-kicking “Almost There.” David soaks up all the menacing fun on the bass-thumping “Friends on the Other Side.” A nearly unrecognizable Lewis delivers foot-stomping gospel-inflected joy on “Dig a Little Deeper.” And Wooley and company serve up sheer bliss on “When We’re Human,” which has become an indelible addition to the Disney songbook.

The end result was a commercial and artistic triumph despite its flaws. The Princess and the Frog is as entrenched in the pop culture landscape as Bambi, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Toy Story or Frozen. For example, Play Like Mum, a British website, looked at 20 years of records of babies’ names and found that Tiana was the second-most popular Disney-inspired name in the United Kingdom, just behind Elsa of Frozen.

In August, Disney announced that Princess Tiana and Prince Naveen are part of its new Midnight Masquerade princess and prince doll sets (with a price of $200), just one more addition to a long list of The Princess and the Frog merchandise. This Halloween there was no shortage of little girls wearing Princess Tiana’s green gown. And a Princess and the Frog-themed restaurant is set to open in a new hotel at Walt Disney World.

There’s such passion surrounding the film and its title character that Disney was forced to reanimate scenes from 2018’s Ralph Breaks the Internet that featured Tiana hanging out with a group of her fellow princesses, including Cinderella, Rapunzel and Jasmine, because she had been portrayed with lighter skin and more Eurocentric hair than in the original film.

“We were disturbed when she was changed so radically from the original movie,” said Brandi Collins-Dexter of the civil rights organization Color of Change, which led the charge to switch Tiana back to her prominent black features. “She’s incorporated into the Disney theme parks now. They have to hire black women to be Princess Tiana. So to whitewash that character was basically recasting Tiana.”

Rose released her own statement on the controversy, revealing that she met with the producers of the sequel, Wreck It Ralph 2. “They explained how CGI animation did different things to the characters’ color tones in different light compared to hand-drawn original characters,” she noted, “and I was able to express how important it is to the little girls [and let’s face it, grown women] who felt represented by her that her skin tone stay as rich as it had been, and that her nose continue to be the little round nose that Mark Henn so beautifully rendered in the movie; the same nose on my very own face and on many other little brown faces around the world, that we so rarely get to see represented in fantasy.”

Since the 2009 release of The Princess and the Frog, a lot has changed. More than ever, movie studios are recognizing the importance of empowering women and people of color to tell their stories. And there’s plenty of money to be made, too, as proven by the $1.3 billion box office earned by 2018 blockbuster Black Panther.

At New York Comic Con in October, Rose appeared on a panel with three other actresses who had portrayed Disney princesses and noted her character was the only one whose film had not been remade or had a sequel announced. She told fans to start petitions and write to Disney. “Send them a physical letter,” Rose said amid applause.

It is not unrealistic to believe that if The Princess and the Frog were released today, it would be bolstered by black directors, a black writer, a black composer or even a black lead animator. But its universal message of never giving up in the face of the obstacles would remain the same.

“It was very important to be from Mississippi, being that [The Princess and the Frog] was based in the South,” said Dampier, who will never forget her part in that watershed cinematic moment. “It helped to inspire other girls and show that [everyone can] make a mark, too.”

As for Wooley, he’s still boogying in the bayou.

“When I have the Disney radio station on and ‘When We’re Human’ comes on, it’s a whole thing,” he said. “I will stop the car in a parking lot just to sing it! As a voice actor, being an animated Disney character is like getting the ultimate brass ring. But more importantly, to star in the first Disney film featuring a predominantly black cast … it’s surreal.”

‘Dolemite’s’ Da’Vine Joy Randolph gets a role that reflects her truth The Tony-nominated actress stars with Eddie Murphy in new Netflix film

There’s a moment near the end of Netflix’s Dolemite Is My Name — a biopic of the late comedian Rudy Ray Moore (portrayed by Eddie Murphy) — when Hollywood newcomer Da’Vine Joy Randolph grabs Murphy, looks him in the eyes and delivers this line:

“I’m so grateful for what you did for me,” Randolph says in character as Dolemite’s Lady Reed. “Cuz I ain’t never seen nobody who looks like me up there on that big screen.”

She and Murphy did three takes to nail the scene. Randolph, a full-figured, chocolate-skinned black woman, cried every time she had to deliver that line, and Murphy held her hand while she got through them.

“She wasn’t just saying lines from the script,” said Larry Karaszewski, one of the writers of Dolemite. “She was literally saying what was in her heart to Eddie Murphy. It was totally sincere.”

Craig Robinson, Mike Epps, Tituss Burgess, Eddie Murphy, Da’Vine Joy Randolph on the set of the Netflix film Dolemite Is My Name .

Courtesy Everett Collection

However you see Dolemite Is My Name (it had a limited release in theaters on Oct. 4 and begins streaming on Netflix on Friday), here’s why that moment is important: that line is an exclamation point for Randolph’s existence in Hollywood — her representation and visibility on stage, on TV and now, in film.

“That’s my truth. When I saw that in the script, I was like, that’s it right there in a nutshell. You know what I mean? The choices. The clothing choices. The scripts I picked. It’s all in there,” Randolph said.

Her journey goes back to the beginning of the decade. In 2011, she was an aspiring actress in New York looking for a gig. To pay the bills, she worked as a nanny for two boys in Harlem. The next year, she was acting on Broadway — theater devotees know her best as the Tony-nominated actor of the Broadway production of Ghost the Musical, where she portrayed Oda Mae Brown. She also played Poundcake alongside Taraji P. Henson’s Cookie on Fox’s hit series Empire.

“In my career now, I wanna transcend color, and I wanna transcend size. Even gender. I just wanna play and tell real stories.” — Da’Vine Joy Randolph

Randolph was recently cast in Lee Daniel’s forthcoming The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Filming begins next month in Montreal. (The role hasn’t been specified yet, but if it has anything to do with singing, she’s got that on lock, too, considering she’s also a classical singer.)

“In my career now, I wanna transcend color, and I wanna transcend size,” she said. “Even gender. I just wanna play and tell real stories.”

She’s purposeful, yes. But nothing is predetermined. An example of what catches her eye? An out-of-the-box character description like the one written for Dolemite.

“The breakdown of the character was if a man was writing a love letter to a woman. It wasn’t like, oh, fat black woman. Wild, fat black girl. Heavy-set, morbidly obese. I’ve seen everything in those breakdowns,” she said. “The amount of care and consideration in just the breakdown, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m about it. If they did that for the breakdown, what’s the script like?!’ ”

Building Lady Reed’s character was a challenge for the screenwriting team of Scott Alexander and Karaszewski.

“I sat at the back of the theater and watched. It’s ridiculous to say that I tear up every single time. She’s so good!” — Larry Karaszewski

“Everything we knew about her biographically we put in the movie! We knew she’d sang back up in New Orleans and we knew she had a son, and that was about it. So, we just took a step back and said, ‘Well, Rudy really seemed to believe in her.’ It’s like he was trying to groom her as his new star and he then kept putting her into the movie. So we just ran with that, and it gave the relationship a sweetness to the movie,” Alexander said.

“Even though we wrote the script, we attended a screening of the film and arrived 10 minutes before the movie ended. I peeked my head in and said, ‘We’re near that scene where she comes out of the house.’ I sat at the back of the theater and watched,” Karaszewski said. “It’s ridiculous to say that I tear up every single time. She’s so good!”

Ruth E. Carter, Luenell, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Mike Epps, Keegan-Michael Key, Craig Robinson, Eddie Murphy, and Tituss Burgess attend LA Premiere Of Netflix’s “Dolemite Is My Name” at Regency Village Theatre on Sept. 28 in Westwood, California.

Dolemite has something we rarely see explored in film the insecurity of a man and his body. That’s normally reserved for female characters, and the idea that a man was questioning his desirability appealed to Randolph.

“You don’t see me sitting in the corner crying like, ‘Nobody loves me. I can’t get a man.’ No, no, no, no. No! You see a man go through identity and the fear of having a sex scene and not feeling confident. You don’t usually see that. And then to have that man come to a black woman to seek counsel and solace,” she said. “And allow a black woman to do what she does best? It’s special. I felt like they were really onto something that I think, in all the laughs, if you really look at it, you see the deeper meaning. Eddie allowed himself to be vulnerable. It just shows that a guy has humanity.”

Starring next to one of the world’s most famous comedians in a film that will likely be her breakout moment is a lot to take in.

“You have to learn to feel comfortable in the uncomfortable ability and trust in your talent and your worth, and [know] that if you conduct yourself in a certain manner and live your life through kindness, respect, and authenticity, you will attract and be around things that are like-minded,” she said. “It may not even be something that you pray for. Like that saying, ‘God can build a dream bigger for you.’ ”

The character and that special line “was a generous gift to have in the script,” Randolph said.

“I [mean] this from the bottom of my heart, because, who knows, but this could possibly be the thing that changes the course of things in my career. I am extremely grateful and humbled by it.”