Why do animators keep turning people of color into animals?

Lance, Tiana, and Joe go to the "Sunken Place." Art by Michael Jermaine Doughty for Mic
ByBrian Anthony Hernandez
Originally Published: 

In 2009, The Princess and the Frog was greeted as a long-awaited milestone: more than 80 years after its debut feature, Disney had finally centered its first Black princess, Tiana. But less than 30 minutes into the animated film, the relatable hero was stripped of her human qualities and made to hop around as a frog before younger viewers and their parents, some of whom were seeing themselves represented as a Disney princess for the first time.

Though perhaps the most prominent, Tiana’s transformation wasn’t the first time Disney turned people of color into animals. In 2003's Brother Bear, Kenai, an Inuit boy, becomes an angry bear. In 2000's The Emperor's New Groove, Kuzco, an Incan emperor, is turned into an anxious llama.

Given this history, many are now wondering whether the groundbreaking princess will manage to avoid the same sad fate when Tiana, the upcoming animated TV spinoff, arrives next year on Disney+? Some viewers, including Los Angeles-based culture critic Ryan Mitchell, sure hope Disney avoids this dehumanizing microaggression.

“I’m hoping Disney learned that telling these stories should be handled with care, and that by actively listening, now understands they could have done some things better by making sure Black animators, directors, actresses and actors are part of the process to ensure the story feels authentic,” Mitchell, 27, tells Mic. “Princess Tiana is rooted in the Louisiana Bayou and that is very nuanced. This isn’t just an animation — this is something that could really impact whoever is watching it. That’s the power of representation, and we shouldn’t take it lightly.”

Are you saying Black characters are connected to animals? Is this all you think we’re really worth? Did Cinderella turn into a pumpkin?

In recent months we’ve been having a similar head-scratching discussion about Pixar’s life-affirming Soul, starring that studio's first Black lead character, Joe Gardner. This time, Joe falls into a manhole and goes into a coma that sends his soul into the afterlife (and a pre-life phase called The Great Before) less than 10 minutes into the film. While his soul tries to escape the cosmic realm to return to Earth, it inadvertently gets trapped inside a therapy cat instead of his human body. Watching this Black protagonist as a cat clawing his way around New York City, it’s not hard to connect it with the studio's other problematic animated films.

“It was strange that the main character in Soul was a cat, and then you had Tina Fey playing this weird cartoon blackface in a way because her character [named 22] was inhabiting his body,” says Mitchell, who often addresses diversity as a co-host of Let’s Go There with Shira [Lazar] & Ryan on LGBTQ+ station Channel Q. “When you’re talking about him being the first — the first — Black male lead and then he’s a cat instead, there are some valid questions and concerns that should be answered. Are you saying Black characters are connected to animals? Is this all you know how to do when you’re telling Black stories? Is this all you think we’re really worth? Did Cinderella turn into a pumpkin?” Walt Disney Studios declined to comment to Mic about this story on representation in animation.

The trio, transformed. Art by Michael Jermaine Doughty for Mic

Proper representation in animation is an important conversation to have, especially as more films featuring characters from underrepresented communities are developed, marketed, and released from Disney/Pixar as well as competing animation studios like DreamWorks, Illumination, and Warner Bros.

The studios would do well to learn a few lessons from 2015's Home, which features an African American girl (voiced by Rihanna) who propels an underlying story about understanding outsiders and immigrants, and Matthew Cherry's Hair Love, which went on to win the 2019 Oscar for Best Animated Short Film at the Academy Awards for its emotional story about a Black father learning to style his daughter’s hair using advice from video tutorials his cancer-stricken wife (voiced by Issa Rae) posted on her vlog. Cherry's work in particular, says Mitchell, is worth praising. "He's really creating a blueprint of what it looks like when people of color are able to have a seat at the table and what that power can do because we’re just now extending the table and creating beautiful stories,” says the critic.

In the case of Soul, the film's production team stands by the creative choices for Joe’s character. When asked if they were concerned about having the Black lead spend most of his time as a cat and soul, producer Dana Murray told Entertainment Tonight that they thought about it for years, “really building up a culture [of] trust internally within the company and also brought on a lot of consultants externally and talked about these very tropes and had the hard conversations. I would say it was probably discussed almost every day for four years of how to do it right and not be disrespectful.” Soul director Pete Docter added, “Yeah, very tricky,” while co-director Kemp Powers, who is Black, described the character’s transformation as “potentially problematic because of the history of animation and how Black people are treated, and we purposely made sure that we treated these characters with [a] different level of respect.”

“I'm just mad I've never seen a black lead character in Disney films where they stay black THE WHOLE TIME.”

The criticism was swift after Soul debuted on Disney+, with Philly artist Michael Jermaine Doughty likening it to 2017’s Get Out, in which Black people’s consciousnesses are forced into the nightmarish “Sunken Place” while white people inhabit their bodies to obtain immortality in the real world. Outraged, Doughty depicted Tiana, Joe, and Will Smith's character from Spies in Disguise as their actual selves fall into the Sunken Place and their IRL bodies are replaced with a frog, a disembodied soul, and a pigeon. “I'm just mad I've never seen a black lead character in Disney films where they stay black THE WHOLE TIME,” he wrote on Instagram. “I mean, how many more creatures do we have to turn into in order for us to stay in a... movie as ourselves?”

A barrage of Twitter users also chimed in: “Given 2020’s ‘racial reckoning,’ Soul is tone deaf,” tweeted Boston University clinical assistant professor Phillipe Copeland. “Soul did not sit right with me at all. Kill off the Black man not even 10 minutes in? And have a white woman take over his body? It’s a no for me,” tweeted conservation social scientist Aalayna Green. “When children are still more likely to see animals than Black people in a children’s story...just sayin,” tweeted Black History and Race Educator Tré Ventour.

Notably, Disney and Pixar have made some strides in diversifying characters, plots, and production teams. Over the past few decades, ethnicities and cultures represented by lead characters, despite not all of them being entirely honest representations, include Mexican (Coco in 2017), Polynesian (Moana in 2016), Japanese (Big Hero 6 in 2014), Native Hawaiian (Lilo & Stitch in 2002), Chinese (Mulan in 1998), and Native American (Pocahontas in 1995). The cast for Disney’s most recent film Raya, which features a Southeast Asian protagonist voiced by Star Wars actress Kelly Marie Tran, is stacked with Asian American voice actors. And Encanto, Disney’s other 2021 animated release, will center on a family that lives in Colombia.

For Soul, Disney hired many music and cultural consultants, including Grammy-nominated musician Jon Batiste and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bradford Young, an expert on lighting Black actors, to work his lighting magic on Soul’s Black animated characters.

Still, many people in the communities that animation studios are trying to depict believe more can be done to accurately represent POC in their creations, so much so that a Change.org petition addressing this issue has received over 4,000 signatures. The petition highlights a pattern of dehumanizing Black characters, referencing movies such as The Princess and the Frog and Soul, along with Blue Sky’s Spies in Disguise, in which Black secret agent Lance Sterling (voiced by Will Smith) transforms into a pigeon. The petition’s solution to preventing this “disrespectful” trope (a.k.a. “crumbs of representation”) from happening again is to hire people of color in decision-making roles and executive positions. “Separating black characters from their black bodies and the inability to see their innate humanity need to stop,” the petition reads.

In comparison, almost all of Disney, Pixar, and Blue Sky’s non-POC protagonists dating back to 1937 have remained as their human forms for the entirety of their films.

Subterranean Pass Way/Change.org

That said, Mitchell, who touts the Toy Story movies, Onward, and Coco as being some of his favorite Disney/Pixar films, does not only have criticisms for Soul. “I loved that this movie really had meaningful conversations about mental health because mental health can be a very taboo subject for Black folks, African Americans," he says. "It’s important to show kids that the feeling they’re feeling can be normal.”

Mitchell also appreciates the barbershop scene’s attention to detail, with the poster on the wall showing off different haircut styles. Filmmakers visited barbershops to accurately present this part of Black culture, with co-director Powers emphasizing that “there’s no more culturally authentic place in the Black community than the barbershop. In many ways, it’s the town center — particularly for Black men. It’s a place where these men — from all walks of life — come together.”

“It’s crucial for all audiences, especially children, to see characters who look like them.”

Despite the public outcry, the NAACP Image Awards, whose mission is to recognize outstanding achievements and performances of people of color in the arts, announced last month that the diverse cast of Foxx, Angela Bassett (who voices jazz legend Dorothea), Questlove (Joe’s former student, Curley), and Phylicia Rashad (Joe’s mom, Libba) all earned nominations for Outstanding Character Voice-Over Performance in a Motion Picture. Soul also received nods for Outstanding Animated Motion Picture, Ensemble Cast, Soundtrack, and Writing — an early indicator of a fruitful awards season during which Disney/Pixar’s Soul already brought home Golden Globes for Best Animated Picture and Best Original Score.

“It’s crucial for all audiences, especially children, to see characters that look like themselves and their communities in TV and film,” Kyle Bowser, senior vice president of the NAACP Hollywood Bureau, writes in an email to Mic. “Like this year’s outstanding nominees, we expect to continue seeing Black representation in mainstream animated projects.”

Meanwhile, Mitchell feels conflicted about celebrating Pixar’s first Black protagonist and the film’s successes. “I want to celebrate this moment but also be real about the situation,” he says about Disney/Pixar repeatedly altering BIPOC characters. “It’s starting to feel old. This one-trick pony needs to find another trick. Some people will say it’s just an animation and it’s not really real, but the stories they’re telling connect to real people and could change lives. We have to realize the power of entertainment is not something you can throw off to the side.”