There’s a new Cinderella out on Amazon and it stars a Latina in singer/songwriter Camila Cabello. It’s her film debut and it’s a fun one—a musical of covers of beloved songs, performed by fan-favorite actors. Idina Menzel of Wicked and Frozen sings “Material Girl” as the evil stepmother and the result is… perfect. Likewise, Billy Porter of Pose flaunts his fabulousness as a genderless fairy godmother.
This Cinderella works for different generations of audiences too—with Minnie Driver and Pierce Brosnan (who thankfully has learned NOT to sing on camera after his disastrous performance in Mamma Mia!) playing the King and Queen while Nicholas Galitzine (Highstrung, Handsome Devil) plays our Prince. For her part, Cabello seems to be enjoying herself, playing the famous princess not as a saint or victim but rather as a misunderstood free spirit who’s ready to break into song when the moment calls for it. The result is a bright, fun film that will leave you humming at least one song from your youth.
Still, something is off in this magical kingdom. And this being Hollywood, it’s no surprise that it has to do with race and ethnicity. “Rhythm Nation” is a mixed country with folks of all stripes populating the village square and the king’s court. The town crier is Black as is the Fairy Godmother. And obviously, our heroine is Latina. But her family is white, both the one she (surprise!) marries into and the one she must escape to fulfill her dreams.
It’s an odd choice that ends up giving the impression that people of color are either magical exceptions or background rather than the high- and low-powered humans that populate the rest of the film. The town crier exists solely to advance the plot, having no backstory of his own and singing about the white people’s business. The same could be said of Billy Porter’s character, who exists to help “Ella” and not much else. He’s literally a magical Negro, which is rough. There’s visiting Black royalty in Queen Tatiana played by Beverley Knight, and while she’s ostensibly an empowering character (Black! Queen! Has job for “Ella!”), we don’t learn much about her.
The white stars though, they get complex motivations and backstories. Galitzine’s Prince Robert is smarting under the pressure to someday be king and over the course of the film, he figures out what’s important to him. Menzel’s stepmother was once a talented pianist but, because of sexism, had to give up her dreams. That’s what turns her into the practical, cruel woman we see. She’s just trying to set up the young women in her care to best succeed in an unjust world. We even learn about the King and Queen, how they feel in, out, and back in love again. It’s quite the progression for two side characters. And it’s the type of arc that none of the Black characters get, no matter how famous, talented, or highly billed.
So what about Cabello as Cinderella? Isn’t that radical enough? This is where the whole Latinx identity thing gets tricky. Plenty of the film’s audience will not know who she is and will easily imagine her as Anglo, like them. It’s not so much that her skin tone is middling (although it is). It’s more that nothing about her character says Latina. We don’t see her parents to get a hint at her background. No one mentions her Latindidad. She doesn’t speak Spanglish. So, for the audience that wants to, they can imagine her as white and never think twice about it.
Of course, plenty of us do know and are excited about it. I’m one of them (and now, hopefully so are you) but I’m not sure that’s the boon for representation I want it to be. I hope Cabello goes on to be a movie star and swells our Hollywood ranks. But in this film, her identity appears to be accidental, at worst something to be ignored, at best a marketing ploy to give folks like me an extra reason to tune in. And that is not enough.
It’s not that I think Cinderella has racist intentions—clearly they were purposeful about casting multiracial background dancers. But if there’s anything anyone learns from the response to In the Heights, it’s that background characters are not enough. In this film where mice turn to men, a pair of class slippers only fit one woman, and magic can help you walk in heels, why oh why, can’t royal people also be of color? What a different film this would be if they’d swamped Minnie Driver and Beverley Knight, making a mixed-race prince. It’s a small choice but it’s an important one.
The creator, Kay Cannon of Pitch Perfect fame, took pains to revise the fable away from its >women-being-mean-to-each-other roots. I wish she’d take the same care with race and ethnicity. Maybe as a white woman, Cannon needed some help to fully realize that vision. Hopefully, next time she seeks it out and gets it. If for no other reason so I can watch joyful musicals like hers without the nagging feeling that I’m enjoying something that is flecked with racist rot. In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy Cinderella for what it is. And keep asking for more.
A writer and activist, Cristina Escobar is the co-founder of latinamedia.co, uplifting Latina and gender non-conforming Latinx perspectives in media. She’s a member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association and writes at the intersection of race, gender, and pop culture. You can follow her on Twitter: @cescobarandrade.