I swear I heard several million Black people scream through my computer monitor when Disney+ announced that it will finally stream Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella starting 12th February. It may have another official title, but the Brandy-starring remake of the classic fairytale has always been Black Cinderella to me.
Releasing the movie just ahead of Valentine’s Day feels like a lovely little corporate love letter to all the people who first encountered this Cinderella with Black people as the lead characters. Maybe Disney just wanted to profit off some old intellectual property or fulfill a regular demand from Black Twitter in which Black folks ask for cultural touchstones to be made available on streaming platforms pretty much since the advent of many of these platforms. For example, after years of being tweeted at, Netflix added seven highly-demanded 90s Black sitcoms, including Moesha, Girlfriends, and Sister Sister.
Black Cinderella holds a special place in my heart for all the obvious reasons. It features a Black princess, a Black fairy godmother, a Filipino prince, Whoopi Goldberg! Victor Garber! — but there are less obvious ones too: The stepsisters’ outfits are hilarious. The songs are so memorable that I catch myself singing “Falling in love with love is falling for make-believe” when a celebrity couple I like breaks up. Plus, it was the first work I’d seen Jason Alexander in, and it has added that much more joy to watching him in Seinfeld. Aside from the magic we saw on screen, Black Cinderella was so impactful, and still is, because of its place in the cultural landscape when it aired and the team that worked behind the scenes.
Black Cinderella proved that studios could bank on Black-led and diverse casts to tell stories of every variety.
A major film being introduced on television by Disney CEO Michael Eisner to an audience of 60 million was a big deal in the ‘90s and for that film to have a cast as diverse as Cinderella’s was seemingly miraculous. Black television shows like the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Family Matters had been popular, but a multi-camera sitcom is much cheaper to make than a blockbuster movie. And that’s where the production hit some roadblocks before it even began.
As late executive producer Craig Zadan told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1997, “The reaction from everybody was wildly enthusiastic, but no one wanted to make the investment.” After Zadan and production partner Neil Meron’s 1993 success with staging Gypsy starring Bette Midler for CBS, they heard from Whitney Houston’s rep that she was interested in working with them. The duo wanted Whitney Houston to play Cinderella and she agreed, but as the film made its way through development — first at CBS and then at ABC — Houston changed her mind.
“Yes, I was supposed to be Cinderella. But after you get married and have a baby, it’s like, I’m not feeling quite like Cinderella,” Houston told JET in 1997. Instead, she took on two roles: Cinderella’s fairy godmother and executive producer (and Brandy’s mentor —the two singers struck up a beautiful friendship on set). Along with Houston came Debra Martin Chase — the first Black woman to get a major television deal at any studio — and musical theatre writer Robert L. Freeman.
With Houston’s star power, Martin Chase’s rolodex, Freeman’s authorial skills, and Zadan and Meron’s televised musical theatre background, Disney basically said, you do you. When I spoke with Zadan and Meron in 2017, they didn’t recall any pushback from the network on their casting choices. However, the budget remained a challenge. That is, Disney basically said, you do you, but at The House Of Mouse, we make money, not spend money.
She may have been busy touring and recording, but Houston’s commitment to production never wavered; she accepted an un-divalike fee for her acting role. The producers then begged favours from their friends in the cast and on the production. “It all started with Whitney. [When] Whitney accepted a certain salary, the other cast members knew [what] she was getting paid,” Zadan said. ”They said ‘OK, I can’t ask for more than Whitney Houston so they took the same amount. And we luckily got that astonishing cast for very little money.”
In the end, ABC could handily have afforded to spend more. At the time, the network had commissioned a handful of original films — like Toothless starring Kirsty Alley — to air as part of the same Friday movie night block known as The Wonderful World of Disney. Black Cinderella ended up as ABC’s highest-rated film in fourteen years, according to Meron. If Black sitcoms proved that there were returning audiences for Black storytelling, then Black Cinderella proved that studios could bank on Black-led and diverse casts to tell stories of every variety.
Black Cinderella’s legacy radiates beyond its first appearance twenty-four years ago. You could argue that Shonda Rhimes’ multi-racial casting in Grey’s Anatomy’s 2005 primetime debut owes a great deal to the early portion of Rhimes’ career spent as an assistant Debra Martin Chase’s production company. It’s also easy to draw a straight line between Black Cinderella’s diverse cast and Rhimes’ latest success, Bridgerton, which stars Black people in Regency-era England and is being hailed for its inclusive casting. And still, Black Cinderella‘s depiction of multi-racial families and relationships remains a rarity. Films like Mississippi Masala, The Lovebirds, and Namaste Wahala (out on Valentine’s Day) are among the few films depiction Black romantic leads with non-white partners.
Along with Brandy’s perfect braids, I have spent years and tears trying to achieve the vision of strength and care laid out by Black Cinderella.
Black Cinderella also laid the groundwork for the return of the live musical event on television. When we spoke, Zadan and Meron had just completed the NBC live airing of The Wiz! That, too, was an iconic story retconned with Black characters as a celebration of Black music. In our conversation, Zadon and Meron noted an irony that there had been little controversy surrounding a Black Cinderella in 1997 but there was a small racist ruckus over a Black Annie, played by Quvenzhané Wallis, in 2014. In 2009, Disney introduced the first official Black Disney Princess via The Princess and The Frog’s Tiana. And as far as family-friendly Black representation today, the Kenya Barris Industrial Complex continues to churn out hit after hit: Black-ish, Grown-ish, Mixed-ish, and Black AF, but none of these quite hit the same as Black Cinderella.
The day Disney+ announced that Black Cinderella was coming back reminded me of a day in 2015 when I took my baby cousin to see Cinderella starring Lily James. Frankly, I was shocked to see a white Cinderella —I forgot this princess could be white! — but my cousin didn’t care. (If anything, she thought Cinderella needed to steal a horse and get out of town, which is the correct opinion.)
I cared a lot then and I care a great deal now. When parts of the feminist movement started pushing back against the girl-as-princess trope, I felt foolish in my sense that not all girls had been imbued with the belief that we were actually princesses. Like Brandy’s Black Cinderella sitting in my own little corner, in my own little chair (while, ahem, sitting up in my room), I liked to pretend to be one. In the real world, I was meant to be Strong and Sassy. Frankly, I cried a lot from ages three until this sentence so I am mostly Soft and Easily Provoked. Princesshood was a convenient shorthand to both being powerful and allowing for your own fragility, and as a Black girl, I found few role models that exemplified this in the Western world.
Brandy’s Black Cinderella walked that fine line perfectly: she wanted to be cared for but not at the expense of her internal strength. Along with Brandy’s perfect braids, I have spent years and tears trying to achieve the vision of strength and care laid out by Black Cinderella.
What the production team behind Black Cinderella achieved was not just giving us this perfect picture, but opening the doors to a whole gallery of film and television. They brought to bear years of experience and a commitment to telling stories differently that has left an indelible mark on the culture we now consume. Hey, thanks to Black Cinderella, impossible things are happening every day.
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