Disney plans to make a film about a white American man from Virginia who claims land in an African nation so that his daughter can become a princess. It’s 2015, and the studio wants to make a movie, based on a true story, about colonization. What is there not to like?
It sounds like satire, or a spoof from The Onion, but no, you couldn’t make this up if you tried.
Disney bought the rights to The Princess of North Sudan, the story about Jeremiah Heaton, a farmer from Abingdon, Virginia, who planted a flag on an uninhabited parcel of land between Egypt and Sudan, and proclaimed it the Kingdom of North Sudan. It was his daughter Emily’s seventh birthday. In an interview, Heaton told Agence France-Presse, “With a child you don’t want to ever tell them they can’t be something they desire to be, and at age six, her frame of reference for the world was to be a princess. So I told her that she could be.”
Of course, because who wants to disappoint a little girl and tell her she can’t be a princess, if it means claiming land she has no right to own in an African country?
Disney has tapped Stephany Folsom (1969: A Space Odyssey or How Kubrick Learned to Stop Worrying and Land on the Moon) to write the script. Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me and The Greatest Movie Ever Sold) and Richard Arlook are the producers.
Some questions are just begging to be asked. First of all, who was in the room — or not in the room, for that matter — when the decision was made to buy the rights to a film that glorifies and romanticizes colonization? Second, exactly who decided this was a good idea or that a market exists for such a film?
Twitter did not take too kindly to this. For example, @cramer_rm tweeted: “Great. A new disney movie about columbusing African Lands. Can’t wait to see it! #PrincessOfNorthSudan #LongLiveWhiteSupremacy.”
@ztsamudzi said “’Princess of North Sudan’ is a mess. It is a Disney project about literal white entitlement.” Also, @_shekinahc tweeted: “I really hope #PrincessOfNorthSudan is just a white privileged pipe dream that never comes to pass. You have a choice here @DisneyPictures.”
Folsom responded on Twitter condemning colonialism and saying she would not write such a story. “There is no planting a flag in Sudan or making a white girl the princess of an African country. That’s gross. #PrincessOfNorthSudan” she tweeted. Meanwhile, one has to wonder how a film with such a storyline can be interpreted as anything other than colonialism. Heaton reportedly hopes to raise the issue of hunger and climate change in the film, which will focus on his relationship with his daughter.
Media images are powerful in shaping our reality, our culture, public opinion and policy. Hollywood has a long history on the sticky subject of racial subjugation, from the first blockbuster film, The Birth of a Nation, which glorified the Ku Klux Klan and shunned black emancipation from slavery. The 1915 film led to protests by civil rights groups and race riots and helped justify the lynchings and system of Jim Crow segregation against black people at that time.
Disney’s 1946 film Song of the South was met with criticism from the NAACP and others due to its portrayal of Uncle Remus, a happy, singing magical Negro and ex-slave in Reconstruction-era Georgia.
King Kong was a racist allegory dealing with relationships between back men and white women.
The film Tarzan — originally created by Edgar Rice Burroughs — depicted the “lord of the jungle” as a white man and reflected the white supremacist and pro-colonial sentiments of its day. Disney went out of its way to avoid the black and white issues of the story in its 1999 remake.
Similarly, Jungle Book was racially problematic, as it depicted an orphan Indian boy under British colonial rule, and its author, Rudyard Kipling, was a defender of British imperialism who coined the term “White Man’s Burden.” Disney portrayed the story in an animated 1967 film featuring a jive-talking Orangutan but has an opportunity to clean things up with its remake starring Scarlett Johannson, Idris Elba and Bill Murray. And Gunga Din, based on a poem by Kipling, portrays an Indian water carrier who saves a British colonial soldier before losing his life.
Meanwhile, the 1968 classic Planet of The Apes turned the colonial narrative on its head during a time of black power and civil rights struggles by not-so-subtly envisioning a world in which the oppressed (presumably black people) take over.
Those who have the money will make the movies they want, no matter how bad, tasteless, ill-conceived or awkwardly timed. There are many stories that need telling, including films that tell the true story of colonialism and the struggles of people against oppression, and positive, uplifting portrayals. Ultimately, those who want such films need to make them.
The Princess of North Sudan comes at a time when Americans are challenged to confront issues of racism and white privilege in new ways, as a majority of the babies born in this country are now black and brown. Hollywood gets lazy when it returns to the old formulas that are best left in the past. And no one wants to see a film about a white man who claims land not his own and makes his little girl the princess of Africa.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove