On Disney's "The Princess of North Sudan" and the Audacity of White Entitlement

by Kesiena Boom

Disney’s record on racism is less than stellar, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be improving anytime soon with the furor surrounding the company’s announcement that a new film, The Princess of North Sudan, is in development. Last Tuesday, The Hollywood Reporter wrote that Stephany Folsom, a well respected screenwriter would be on board to pen the movie, which also boasts Super Size Me’s Morgan Spurlock as a producer. Following the announcement, Black Twitter got its claws out to shine a light on the awfulness of the film’s premise.

The film is based on the true life story of Virginia man named Jeremiah Heaton, and his quest to fulfill a promise to his daughter, after she asked whether or not she would one day be a real princess. Heaton did some research and found what he thought was the perfect solution: a stretch of disputed and unclaimed desert land named Bir Tawil situated between Egypt and Sudan. In June 2014, he decided to fly there, plant his flag (designed by his three children) and stake claim to a brand new “country” that he named The Kingdom of North Sudan, thus making his daughter a “princess.”

Yeah, you read that right. This film will center around a white American man taking his ass to Africa and essentially calling dibs on a piece of land. Does this story ring any bells? The Scramble for Africa, anyone? Heaton has said that he intends to use “his” new kingdom as a “testbed” for cutting edge science to help alleviate the negative effects of climate change. His website calls for donations to go towards setting up what he terms “the best scientific research” for “revolutionary change.”

Heaton’s intentions may be honourable, after all the world sure does need to take serious and immediate action on climate change, but this is sure as hell not the way to do it. In an interview with The Guardian, Heaton said, “I don't see race, color or creed, and neither do my children.” And herein lies the problem. Heaton’s actions reek of entitlement, and his skin color is very much an important part of why this whole mess is so infuriating and insensitive. White people have been carving up and taking parts of Africa to claim as “their own” for years. Heaton’s actions did not take place in a vacuum. They exist in a world that still bears the scars of colonization and the legacy of white people’s unfettered greed and selfishness.

It’s not cute to teach your daughter that the legacy of brutal colonization is no matter when it comes to indulging white children’s every whim. (Indeed, the only reason Bir Tawil is unclaimed territory is because the Sudanese and Egyptian governments disagreed over colonially drawn borders.)

Whichever way you chop it, this entire project started because a white man thought that his precious white daughter’s childhood fantasy was more important than respecting the fact that his lily white butt has no business “claiming” parts of Africa. No. Matter. His. Intentions. It’s just a staggeringly disrespectful move which exhibits a sense of entitlement so strong, you just know it came from a white guy who is used to bending the world to his whims. It doesn’t matter that Bir Tawil doesn’t have any permanent settlements on it. It doesn’t matter that Sudan and Egypt don’t want it. Neither of those factors add together to equate that some dude from Virginia can have it!

When Heaton’s daughter asked him if she’d ever be a princess, he had a few options:
  1. “You’ll always be a princess to me, honey.” (Nauseating but acceptable.)
  2. “No, but that’s okay because the concept of a monarchy is archaic, arbitrary and undemocratic honey.” (Dead-ass true but maybe a bit much for a young girl to comprehend.)
  3. “No, but you can be a doctor or a pilot or a teacher or a nurse or a zoologist or any of the other amazing professions in the world, honey.” (What I would opt for as a parent.)
Notice what’s missing from that list? Oh, yeah, a small exercise in neo-colonialism with a touch of white saviorism.

Why has Disney decided to go anywhere near this mess? I guess Pocahontas just wasn’t enough to fill their quota for movies with a straight-up racist premise. Disney is not known for it's output of radical cinema, so there is no way that this movie will come out in a way that isn’t unacceptable. Scriptwriter Stephany Folsom has said that it would be “gross” to tell the story of a “white girl” being the “princess of an African country,” but hasn’t elaborated on exactly how she’s going to avoid that. Essentially, this whole charade—from Heaton’s real life actions to Disney’s implicit approval of his actions by wanting to turn them into a film—is low key sickening.

It’s 2015, the romanticization of colonialism has got to end. But I’m not holding my breath.

Photo: Twitter / The Washington Post

Kesiena Boom is a Black lesbian feminist and writer who adores Audre Lorde, sisterhood, and the sociology of sexuality. She is twenty one years old. She is a regular contributor at For Harriet and has also written for Autostraddle.com. You can tweet at her via @KesienaBoom.

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