I know it’s kind of reductive to pit “black” Disney movies against each other, but as I walked out of my Black Panther screening, couldn’t help but think about the differences between the two films, particularly in the way they handled their villains. Both are films with a mostly black cast that use black villains, who are motivated by issues of particular resonance to black audiences. One of these films expresses its themes through the villain in a way that elevated the entire story, and the other botched it so terribly in a tone deaf and borderline offensive way. The main difference that really changed the outcome in how the films conveyed their messages was how they contextualized their villain.
*SPOILERS FOR BOTH FILMS
Let’s take a look at Erik “Killmonger” Stevens from Black Panther and identify what made him such a compelling villain. The most striking thing about him is how he is framed in the film, from start to finish, in a sympathetic light. What makes this radical is that his character is essentially a “Black Panther” in the political sense, and the idea of a Disney film handing over the lion’s share of this film’s emotional resonance to a character like that was shocking to me. The film could have easily been a smash hit if they essentially just made a standard superhero blockbuster where T’Challa (the titular Black Panther) stops evil white people from exploiting Africa or something, but instead they gave us this vengeful ghost from T’Challa’s past to challenge his conception on how the nation of Wakanda should proceed. His hatred and frustration with the world has impact because we understand how it wore at him, we see where he came from, we see his father’s murder, we know about how he was raised in an environment where death and decay were the norm, knowing that across the globe his own flesh and blood was living in luxury, sitting on the resources to help him and countless others like him. We feel his frustration because it’s the kind that has real world stakes and has criticisms about how people have operated in the real world. Even the wrongness of his approach, to be an imperialist himself, is pointed, since he learned everything he knows from his work in the U.S. military. With Killmonger, Black Panther has so much to say and a lot of genuine feelings to express. The key to Killmonger’s and in turn, Black Panther‘s success, is empathy.
Let’s compare that to The Princess and the Frog‘s villain, Dr. Facilier. The character himself is a ton of fun and is phenomenally voiced by the always engaging Keith Davids. His animation is also excellent all around, with the team finding a ton of creative ways to depict his wiry movements in tandem with his living shadow. The problem here, is how his character is framed, especially in opposition to the hero, and the context of his villainy. What motivates Facilier is the straightforward goal of amassing huge amounts of money, but in one of the film’s strongest scenes we get a peek into his emotional drive, and it all comes down to his bitterness and frustration at living in the margins of society while the carefree rich folks moved through their own lives without paying people like him any mind. Facilier’s rage comes from a place in the same vein as Killmonger’s, but the racial element is far less explicit. Facilier’s ultimate desires were far more selfish than Killmonger’s were, but that could have worked if the world around him supported it. Where The Princess and the Frog fails is its characters and messaging.
In the town of New Orleans, the richest and most powerful man around is a sugar baron who goes by the name “Big Daddy La Bouff”. Facilier’s plan is to use sorcery and legal inheritance mumbo jumbo to axe La Bouff and inherit his fortune for himself. To accomplish this, he staked his own soul with his “friends on the other side”, and promised the souls of the people of New Orleans’ as compensation for helping him get rich. That’s a heinous goal clearly, but to get us to care more about the stakes, the writers made a horrifically fatal error in the writing of this story. They basically made La Bouff a saintly, generous figure that gives enormous wads of cash to random black kids, who also happens to be friends with (through his daughter) Tiana (the hero). Tiana herself is a workaholic, poor black woman who only wants to fulfill her dream of opening her own restaurant following her father’s death as he wanted to do the same. The hard working and honest Tiana is too proud to accept charity from her friend, the richest man in town’s daughter, and works hard every day in order to eventually make enough cash to fulfill her dreams. Besides maybe one scene (and even that’s ambiguous), Tiana never really has to deal with racism, and in the end, she is rewarded for all of her hard work by finally achieving her dreams of opening a restaurant, and also marries a prince as a bonus. To be frank, all of this, especially in contrast with Facilier’s character, makes this movie (one that I still very much enjoy) a load of horseshit.
Facilier’s desperation and extreme lengths to get rich are harder to understand in the context of the richest dude in town being a nice white man who loves black people and hands them cash on a whim. Tiana’s only obstacle to success being not having enough money, with the solution always being “work harder”, with her eventually succeeding, is sketchy in the face of the lengths Facilier is willing to go. Also, the final message of her dad never getting what he wanted, but having what he needed (a family) is also kind of insulting. This movie pulled its punches so damn hard that it actually smacked itself in the face. What I’m gathering with Facilier’s character based on this film’s messaging is that there are no real obstacles he faced in society besides being too lazy to work as hard as Tiana to reach his dreams, and that even if he failed in the end and died poor and broken down, at least he had a family so he should be satisfied with that. The super rich folks in town who wipe their asses with more money than guys like Facilier make in a year, are actually super nice and love black people and drive around handing huge wads of cash to black kids in the streets. I should note that this film is set in the 1920s, Disney didn’t HAVE to be this charitable in its depiction of race and class inequality, but they were anyways.
I’m not saying this movie needed to dump on white people to have a good message, Black Panther never felt preachy in that regard and didn’t hit us with a generic racist paper dragon to fight. But in the world of Black Panther, we at least saw the results of the pain and scars colonizers left on black people in Africa and America. Killmonger is a monster created from the drama of the Wakandan royal family sure, but he’s also a product of the African diaspora and is meant to represent the pain and frustration of black people that grew up in America, but never quite felt at home. The fact that The Princess and the Frog would go so far to sanitize the darker half of American history while positioning a character like Facilier as the antagonist is a little offensive, and frankly, embarrassing on Disney’s part. Thank God for Black Panther, because it felt like the sort of redemption we needed in 2018.
Quote of the Day:
“Y’all are sitting up here all comfortable. Must feel good. There’s about two billion people around the world who look like us and their lives are a lot harder.”
– Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, Black Panther.