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‘The Little Mermaid’: A Milestone in Colorblind Casting, But Black Fairy Tales Need Representation Too

Halle Bailey's casting is a breakthrough for the industry, but there's another conversation to be had.

The little mermaid Halle Bailey

Shutterstock/Disney

Last year, star Michael B. Jordan provoked a storm of criticism with just one line in a Vanity Fair cover profile: “We don’t have any black mythology, or folklore.” Jordan later clarified his comment, acknowledging that black folklore has a very long, rich history. What Jordan had in mind was a more specific point: His concerns over the lack of film and TV content that exploits black folklore. And he absolutely should be.

Hollywood films and TV series often treat black history as if it began with the transatlantic slave trade. Of course, it didn’t; it’s a history that includes centuries of culture and tradition, which also isn’t taught in typical American classrooms. And since mass media also serves as mass education, it’s arguable that most Americans are unaware of the rich mythology that has long existed within the global African diaspora. It’s a lesson that Disney could stand to learn.

In a surprising colorblind casting bid, the studio announced late last week that Halle Bailey — better known as one half of the musical duo, “Chloe x Halle” — had landed the role of Ariel in Disney’s upcoming live-action adaptation of its classic “The Little Mermaid.” The news was met with mostly immense appreciation from Bailey’s fans, as well as fans of the iconic Disney character, which is loosely based on the Danish fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen.

Bailey’s casting in a role typically given to white actresses is a milestone whose long-term cultural impact could be seismic. But the news also presents an opportunity to have a larger conversation about colorblind casting in general, which — no matter how well-intentioned — can have adverse effects on the already-marginalized humanity, history, and creativity of historically underrepresented groups. The emphasis on colorblind casting over investment in original black characters and stories only assists in the continuous sidelining of significant creative expressions of black history and culture, which risk being entirely forgotten.

To be sure, with this decision by Disney, Bailey has secured a spot in film history. The actress and singer joins previous noteworthy instances of nontraditional casting at the studio level, from both Eartha Kitt and Halle Berry as Catwoman, to more recent picks like Quvenzhané Wallis as Annie, Naomie Harris as Miss Moneypenny in the Bond franchise, and Michael B. Jordan as Guy Montag in HBO’s “Fahrenheit 451.”

That such a globally-recognized and well-loved character with a rich legacy — long portrayed as a young white woman and, thanks to Disney’s own iconography, often with bright red hair — will now be physically represented by a young black woman with locs is indeed a big deal. Bailey’s face and likeness will cover millions of dollars’ worth of merchandise. And should the movie outperform when it’s released, it would open the door to sequels and other screen possibilities, as has been the case for the original 1989 animated movie since its release.

Kramer Morgenthau and Michael B. Jordan on the set of "Fahrenheit 451"

Kramer Morgenthau and Michael B. Jordan on the set of “Fahrenheit 451”

Michael Gibson/HBO

Ariel is one of the original eight Disney princesses, which also includes other classic heroines Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan. In recent years, the lineup has expanded to include Tiana (herself a black princess in a story of European origins), Rapunzel, Merida, and Moana, with more expected to arrive in coming years.

The Disney princesses are a singular franchise, featured in a wide variety of products, including movies, as well as dolls and other toys, board and video games, numerous children’s books, bedding, clothing, toiletries, costumes, and so much more. They are also prominently featured at Disney theme parks around the world, and have had an outsized impact on children especially. A black Ariel will influence and inspire countless young girls all over the world, despite any criticism Bailey’s casting has drawn (and may continue to stir up).

It remains to be seen whether any pushback will affect the film’s box office performance, though the hashtag #NotMyAriel has been trending on Twitter since the announcement (of note: a number of oft-cited tweets using the hashtag have been outed as the work of bots, and fans of Bailey have since overtaken the tag with positive messages). The studio has yet to date the film’s release, although production is scheduled to begin in April 2020. A 2021 premiere is possible, giving early critics some time to ease into the idea of a black Ariel.

But if there is any genuine criticism to be leveled at Bailey’s casting, and ultimately colorblind casting in general, it’s that it risks sidelining and even erasing black history and culture, specifically black folklore and fairy tales. There’s a rich tradition to draw from, but Hollywood has mostly passed it over.

A wealth of examples can be found in “The Annotated African American Folktales,” which was published in November 2017 by African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Maria Tatar. It’s a groundbreaking, 600-page compilation of black myths and legends, considered the most comprehensive and ambitious collection of black folklore ever published in American literary history, with dozens of tales rarely read before.

There’s the age-old African mermaid legend known as Mami Wata (Mother Water), but it’s a folktale that remains mostly unrecognized and unexplored. Just as Disney borrowed a Danish fairy tale as the basis for their Ariel, the studio could just have easily done the same with a popular African legend as the basis for a live-action Disney film about a mermaid.

The pantheon of Orishas — a collection of deities from African mythology, each with specialized supernatural gifts, powers, and responsibilities, who are believed to have once walked the earth with humans — would also make great fodder for a feature film or a TV series, whether as a literal translation, or even as superheroes, especially at a time when a rethinking of the superhero film might be an investment risk worth taking.

Likewise, instead of a black James Bond, why not create a black action hero franchise of equal caliber? Or, better yet, adapt the work of black authors like Walter Mosley, who has an extensive library of detective novels, notably the Easy Rawlins series. Denzel Washington starred in “Devil in a Blue Dress” almost 30 years ago, which could have launched a franchise. But since then, Mosley’s novels have been all-but ignored by Hollywood, despite a number of attempts.

And in addition to new offerings like a black Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) or a black Domino (Zazie Beetz in the most recent “Deadpool” feature), the comic book universe could explore its already-full lineup of black women superheroes, including Monica Rambeau, Vixen, Bumblebee, Silhouette, and Storm. While Storm has been featured in multiple X-Men movies (played initially by Halle Berry and later, Alexandra Shipp), despite being one of the most popular and formidable superheroines in the Marvel universe, the character has been mostly sidelined, taking a backseat to the male characters in the movies she’s appeared in so far.

Instead of reimagining traditionally white heroes as black characters, stripping them of any cultural lineage and sociopolitical heft, the multi-billion-dollar industry could turn its attention to already-established black characters. The same goes for black male superheroes. The recent botched distribution of Lionsgate’s “Fast Color” is only one example of a film with black leads — and its own unique and original mythology to dive into — that could have benefited greatly from a far better release strategy than it received.

"Thor: Ragnarok"

Tessa Thompson in “Thor: Ragnarok”

There are some inroads being made, however. Thanks to the success of 2018’s “Black Panther,” Disney is developing a live-action fairy tale film titled “Sadé,” centered on an African princess, with “Dope” director Rick Famuyiwa attached to produce the still-undated film. In July 2018, the studio bought a pitch from Ola Shokunbi and Lindsey Reed Palmer, who will co-write the screenplay about a young African girl named Sadé whose kingdom is threatened by a mysterious evil force and accepts her newly discovered magical powers to protect her people, with the help of the kingdom’s prince.

It’s better late than never, and certainly a step in the right direction that will hopefully lead to even more film and TV explorations of stories based on black/African mythology. Doing so successfully should help bolster the case for less reliance on colorblind casting as a means to an end. Real diversity is Hollywood studios making decisive investments in developing black talent, in more original black stories, and giving them the same financing and marketing muscle afforded comparable films with white leads.

Bailey’s landmark casting in the live-action “The Little Mermaid” aside, what is perhaps even more important here is that Disney makes a great movie and unleashes it with the kind of marketing and distribution power given to its previous princess movies. The combined strength of all its various creative, technical, and financial elements are what will help ensure that the film builds its own legacy, and paves the way for more to come.

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