Happy Black History Month! Today we’re taking a look at 10 iconically Black Disney movies (and tv shows) that celebrate Black history and African American culture!
In my multi-cultural family, we spend a lot of time with our kids talking about heritage. For Black Americans, our culture is a rich tapestry of overcoming adversity and celebrating miraculous triumphs. It is a culture that celebrates food and family and giving back to those that have nurtured us. These Disney movies have done a beautiful job celebrating Black history and heritage. I recommend every single one as a Disney “must-watch” during Black history month or any other time of year.
In no particular order:
The Color of Friendship
The Color of Friendship has Disney tackling Black history in the late 1970s. The story unfolds as a white South African girl is sent on an exchange program to live with the family of a Black American congressman who is fighting apartheid. Everyone involved has to set aside their preconceptions in an effort to listen, teach, and learn from one another.
The Color of Friendship shares a taste of what it was like to be Black in the grooviest decade of the 20th century. Although racial tensions remained high, the 70s were also a time of hope for the Black community as more and more Black voices were stepping up and speaking out. It was a time of great music, fashion, and dance—all of which have influenced the Black culture and art we see today and I love seeing that portrayed in this extraordinary family film.
The Proud Family
The Proud Family is an animated series that follows the life of Penny Proud along with her family and friends. Watching the proud family as a child was one of the first times I felt truly seen by Disney as a Black American. Penny’s multiracial crew of homegirls looked so much like mine. She lived in a diverse urban working-class neighborhood, much like mine. She even had a “Suga Mama” instead of a grandma.
For anyone watching the show, The Prouds are a relatable family with their ups and downs and occasional antics just like any other. But for Black children, this was a representation we’d longed for. The Disney cartoon’s diverse collections of episodes discuss everything from Black history to adolescence. This was a television program showing us that we were more than sidekicks and background characters. It was a show that is unapologetically Black while at the same time not about being Black—a true representation of America.
Let It Shine
Our next stop on this Disney Black history tour brings us to the early 2000s in one of my son’s all-time favorite movies, Let It Shine. This Cyrano de Bergerac style hip-hop saga follows a shy young choir director who wins a songwriting contest with his rap lyrics, only to allow his more outgoing best friend to take the spotlight while he continues to write all of the lyrics behind the scenes.
There are few things more quintessentially Black than Hip-Hop and Gospel music. These genres not only tell our stories, but they uplift our community. Let It Shine combines both in this fun, upbeat musical about finding your own voice and having the courage to be yourself.
The Princess and the Frog
Where were you when Disney announced the movie about their first-ever Black Disney princess? I can remember crying tears of joy seeing my culture reflected in a film made by my favorite animation studio. I thought about all of the little girls like me who would grow up seeing their skin reflected in that iconic Disney princess lineup.
The Princess and the Frog is about a hard working young woman in 1920s New Orleans who dreams of owning her own restaurant. There is a quote from this movie that I have always held dear as it sums up so much of what I love about being a Black American. Tiana’s father says to her, “You know the thing about good food? It brings folks together from all walks of life. It warms them right up and it puts little smiles on their faces…”
There are so many times throughout Black history when our people didn’t have much to celebrate. But one thing that has always brought us together is a shared meal. As a people, we cook from the soul. We pour our hearts into every dish and take great pride in sharing that with our loved ones. It’s one of my favorite things about my culture and for that and so many other reasons, The Princess and the Frog has earned its place in Black Disney history.
Black-ish and Mixed-ish
When Black-ish aired its first episode on ABC (owned by Disney), the world was introduced to a family that would reach deep into the Black community and bare our souls. Through comical yet very real scenarios, the Johnson family shares hard-to-talk-about truths about what it means to be Black in the 21st century.
After the success of Black-ish and Grown-ish (a spin-off about the Johnson’s oldest daughter as she heads to college) ABC followed with yet another powerful family sitcom, Mixed-ish. Mixed-ish follows an adolescent Rainbow Johnson (the mother on Black-ish) as she navigates being biracial in the 1980s.
Both sitcoms are brutally honest commentaries about Black culture, written without bias but instead trying to see each situation from all perspectives. And I can’t express how grateful I am for the deeply insightful discussions with my family and friends that have been inspired by these shows.
When I was a little girl, double-dutch was a right of passage in my neighborhood. We would jump rope from sun up to sun down, singing songs about Cinderella kissing a fella and other ridiculous rhymes. It didn’t matter your age or gender, when the double dutch ropes came out, everybody got a turn. It’s a game that nurtures community as everyone watching cheers on the jumper. In the Disney Channel Original Movie Jump In, Disney celebrates the art of double dutch as a time-honored tradition that brings kids together.
Ok, yes I know Wakanda is not a real place. And yes I know that even if it were real, it is in Africa and therefore cannot count as Black American culture. But it felt wrong to have a list celebrating Disney and Blackness and not include the Marvel Studios masterpiece Black Panther.
That said, I’d be remiss to not mention the very real injustices that our anti-hero Erik Killmonger addresses in the film. When discussing Black culture, we have to acknowledge the good with the bad. And while we are a brilliant and creative people, we are also a race that has lived through great sorrows in the form of prejudice, violence, and corruption. Many of which we, sadly, still face today.
Though his methods are flawed, it is Killmonger who ultimately persuades King T’Challa to venture outside of his own community and assist disenfranchised people around the globe. A notion that mimics movements such as the Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter, a very real and important part of our current culture as Black Americans.
Selma, Lord, Selma
In Selma, Lord, Selma, an 11-year-old girl in 1965 Alabama is moved by the words of Martin Luther King Jr. after hearing him speak. When she joins the famed march that will later come to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” she is forced to deal with the ugliest side of racism.
Though the movie and most of its characters are fictional, Bloody Sunday was a real event in Black history that took place on March 7, 1965. In Selma Lord Selma, Disney has given parents an opportunity to open dialogue about injustice, racism, and the civil rights movement. But even more than that, this film is a story of Black resilience and triumph in the face of adversity.
Disney’s 1998 film, Ruby Bridges is based on the true story of a little girl being the first Black student to integrate into her previously all-white school in 1960 New Orleans. For children everywhere, this is a story of courage and perseverance. It shows us how bravery can come in even the smallest of us. For Black children specifically, this movie is an example of how we are not defined by racism and discrimination. The real Ruby Bridges is a legend in Black History and this Disney movie is a wonderful depiction of her story.