African-Americans flock to see 'The Princess and the Frog'

A princess must know how to dress for any occasion.

And the opening of Disney's "The Princess and the Frog" certainly was a fancy affair for 4-year-old Makayla Yanogacio.

The Columbia youngster wore her finest, frilliest green princess dress to the movie's showing Friday afternoon at Regal Cinemas at the Village at Sandhill.

However, a blue tiara simply would not do. It didn't match the green, Makayla said. So, her mother, Dria Yanogacio, carried the tiara in her purse.

Costumes aside, Yanogacio, 33, hoped her two daughters - Mikayla and 13-year-old Nani Williams - understood the significance of Princess Tiana, the main character.

"It's historical," Yanogacio said of the first African-American heroine in Disney's animated catalog.

On Friday afternoon, scores of African-American mothers and daughters filed into the theater to catch "The Princess and the Frog" on opening day. And a few African-American fathers held hands with their daughters as they strolled into the theater.

Stacie Kelly of Columbia said it was about time Disney put an African-American princess on the silver screen.

"Princesses and the reflection in the mirror weren't the same," said Stacie Kelly of Columbia, who took her 6-year-old daughter, Jaila Ishmal. "Finally, the princess looks like me."

For years, Disney's heroines were white: Cinderella, Ariel from "The Little Mermaid," Belle from "Beauty and the Beast," Snow White.

Then, the influential studio began adding a color to their characters with 1995's "Pocahontas," featuring a Native American heroine. That was followed with a Chinese lead character in Mulan and Jasmine, the Arabian heroine in "Aladdin."

African-Americans, however, mostly have been missing in action.

"Clearly, after 70-plus years, Disney is behind the ball. They're late," said Aldo Billingslea, a Santa Clara Universitytheater and dance department professor.

While some may scoff at the relevance of a cartoon character, Billingslea, who has watched his 10-year-old daughter grow up on Disney Channel fare, believes 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, said Karen Bowdre, a University of Indiana professor who specializes in African-American cinema.

Nikole Williams-Manning of Columbia and her daughter McKenzie Manning knew the film would be a hit for them. After all, they enjoy almost any Disney production, and McKenzie loves princess outfits and decorations.

"I wanted her to see there's a princess that resembles her," Williams-Manning said. "It doesn't matter what your background or ethnicity is, you can still become a princess."