When “The Proud Family” debuted on Disney Channel on September 15, 2001, it introduced one of the first animated African-American families to TV.
Over 52 episodes and a TV movie, the series offered a light-hearted portrayal of a suburban black family going about their daily lives. Quirky high school student Penny Proud (voiced by Kyla Pratt) took charge, with her strict but loving parents Oscar and Trudy (Tommy Davidson and Paula Jai Parker), feisty grandmother Suga Mama (Jo Marie Payton) and precocious twin brothers and — sisters BeBe and CeCe round out the rest of the clan.
They bickered, supported each other, cast shadows and showed love – all things typical families do on screen. But before The Prouds, TV audiences rarely saw a black cartoon family doing those mundane things too.
Now the trailblazing brood is back with “The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder,” a 10-episode revival that airs weekly on Disney+ starting Wednesday.
During the show’s original run, from 2001 to 2005, Penny went through the paces of early adolescence — messing around with her multicultural group of friends, pouting about chores, dodging school bullies, and testing parental boundaries. While many of the show’s themes were universal, they were delivered in a way that was uniquely and intentionally rooted in black culture.
The dialogue was littered with the kind of colloquialisms and vernacular that can be heard in many black households. The teasing in the children’s playground used current slang, often borrowed from rap lyrics. There were personal remarks about being ‘shaking’ and class struggles were waged when the working class of the family banged heads with their ‘spark plug’ in-laws.
Even the body language and nonverbal cues—a wary side eye, an indignant look up and down—were embedded as winks at black viewers. The humor worked on multiple levels, with silly jokes appealing to primary school students and subtler punchlines to keep adults engaged.
“A lot of what we would do was, ‘wink, wink. You know what we’re saying, right?'” said Bruce W. Smith, the show’s creator. “We hid a lot of allusions and, frankly, family matters under the guise of what our characters were saying and going through. Where the show shines is in all of its cultural references.
Smith is an accomplished animator who spent much of the 1990s working on such feature films as ‘Space Jam’ and Disney’s ‘Tarzan’ and ‘The Emperor’s New Groove’. Towards the end of that decade, he turned his sights to TV series, aiming to fill a void in the small screen’s animated offerings.
“‘The Simpsons,’ ‘Family Guy’, ‘King of the Hill,’ all these animated sitcoms became all the rage,” he said. “I just looked at them like, okay, goods not in this. We’re not involved in it somehow, and we should be.”
At the time, live-action sitcoms such as “Moesha” and “Sister, Sister” had proven that teenage black girls could both carry a series and draw a devoted audience. Smith wanted to create a cartoon sitcom along the lines of “Moesha” – one that focused on the life and experiences of a black girl.
His first move was to team up with Ralph Farquhar, a creator of “Moesha,” as well as its spin-off, “The Parkers,” and the short-lived Black family dramedy “South Central.” Together they were responsible for “The Proud Family” and the subsequent 2005 TV movie, with Smith also directing several episodes.
“The fact that no one else did it was sad,” Farquhar said in a joint video interview with Smith. “But for us it was this opportunity. We wanted to tell our stories in such a way that we to understand. In that nuanced way that only comes from life.”
Smith added: “The great thing was that there was nothing for us. There was no bar set. That was exciting for us, because then we could raise the bar.”
In addition to mundane domestic scenes — kitchen tables, curfew violations, babysitting snafus — there were a few more educational storylines. These include a poignant Kwanzaa celebration and a Black History Month tribute to often-overlooked celebrities such as trailblazing aviator Bessie Coleman and Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress.
“That’s what I loved about the original: we talked about things that other people would shy away from,” said Pratt, who took on the role of Penny at age 14. “And we’re doing the same this time.”
The revival, also overseen by Smith and Farquhar, has kept much of the flavor of the original but has been updated for the 2020s. Instead of pagers, the kids are using smartphones. Outdated sentences like “van de heezy fo’ sheezy” are out; “woke” and “Black girl magic” are now in.
The original featured guest appearances from popular artists of the early ’00s such as Lil’ Romeo, Mos Def and Mariah Carey. “Louder and Prouder” is similarly star-studded, with cameos from the likes of Lil Nas X, Chance the Rapper, and Lizzo. The heartwarming theme song, performed by Solange Knowles and Destiny’s Child, also got a makeover – the 2022 version is sung by newcomer Joyce Wrice.
Penny and her friends are now firmly in their teens, with all the body changes, increased hormones, and social minefields that come with it. And a few new players have joined the returning core cast.
Former reality TV star EJ Johnson voices Penny’s gender-fluid boyfriend Michael. (Recurring character Wizard Kelly is a sly allusion to Johnson’s father, NBA legend Magic Johnson.) And a same-sex couple, Barry and Randall Leibowitz-Jenkins (Zachary Quinto and Billy Porter), are with their adopted teens: son Francis (Artist Dubose, better known as the rapper A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie) and daughter Maya (Keke Palmer), a fiery activist who serves as Penny’s new foil.
Palmer, whose breakthrough came in the 2006 film “Akeelah and the Bee,” attributes Farquhar to discovering her a few years earlier, when she was 10. (He cast her in a Disney Channel pilot that didn’t get picked up.) Asked her to join “Louder and Prouder” because he knew she was a long-time fan of the original.
“I saw a family that reminded me of mine — I even had a boy and twins in my family,” Palmer said. “That Was A Show That Represented What” mine The black American culture looked like. I thought they were right!”
Nevertheless, Disney chose not to renew “The Proud Family” when original production ended in 2005. (Disney declined to comment on the ending of the original show.) In the interview, Smith and Farquhar said they never knew why the show was canceled, but they made it clear that they always hoped to get it back in some form. to take.
“From the moment we stopped making the original version, we campaigned to bring it back,” Farquhar said. “We weren’t quite sure why we ever stopped.”
They were not alone. “The Proud Family” is a constant source of millennial nostalgia online, with fans sharing show-inspired art and cosplay photos on social media and revisiting beloved episodes in blog posts. Pratt said that overzealous fans have often reached out to her in real life as well.
“People were literally talking to me about the day of my life, trying to get the show going again,” she said.
Farquhar and Smith said they noticed a new influx of “Proud” fans after Disney+ started streaming the original on January 1, 2020. Disney apparently noticed, too. The company approached the men about a revival and then announced it publicly on February 27, 2020.
Farquhar and Smith have since signed a multi-year blanket agreement with Disney to produce animated and live-action series and films and develop projects for emerging and diverse talent. Smith boasted that Louder and Prouder’s staff, from the directors to layout artists to animators, “look like the show.” (Like most of the entertainment industry, animation has historically provided far fewer opportunities to women and people of color than to white men.)
Smith wanted to expand the presence and influence of black people in animation since he started working in the industry in the early 1980s, he said, a mission based on his own experiences as a young cartoon fan.
“Growing up, I loved shows like ‘The Flintstones’ and ‘The Jetsons,'” he said. But together they painted an unwelcome picture: “I didn’t exist in the beginning of time, and I don’t think they’ll be looking for me to exist when spaceships from this planet start flying.”
“I have to do something about that,” he continued. “Because I love this medium and want to see myself in it.”