COLUMN: Little Mermaid opens whole new world of Disney casting

Outrage over selection of black performer an ‘unbelievable’ conversation in 2019

I was probably more shocked than anybody when I read who Disney had cast as Ariel in their upcoming live-action movie, The Little Mermaid (expected release 2020).

That’s because I misread Halle Bailey as Halle Berry.

The waters were pretty murky in my mind until I kept reading and realized they were talking about another Halle – the 19-year-old Grammy-nominated singer/actress.

Excited about the prospect of another live-action Disney movie, I clicked on several posts in my Twitter feed and realized that some people weren’t just surprised about the casting, they were outraged.

#NotMyAriel is a hashtag for a conversation I am having a hard time believing is happening amongst adults in 2019.

The outrage stems from the fact that the talented young woman who is to play Ariel is black.

I mean, grownups are threatening to boycott the movie because this new Ariel is messing with their entire childhood.

The original Ariel, the one we all grew up with, has white skin and red hair, people are protesting. It’s just who she is, they are saying. I’m not racist, but…Ariel should be white.

OK, well, let’s talk about race then, since most statements that start with “I’m not racist, but” are going there anyway.

When Disney made The Little Mermaid a cartoon (loosely based on the Danish folk story by Hans Christian Andersen), Ariel was created with white skin and red hair. She was drawn and painted in the way we all know her.

But let’s not gloss over the fact that she is a mermaid, and therefore, not human.

She doesn’t have to be a particular race. She’s a work of fiction and she can be anything we want her to be.

In The Little Mermaid, race is not important to the story. Ariel is not the same as Mulan (who has to be Chinese, based on the story) or Snow White (who is envied by her stepmother for having skin as white as snow).

Ariel is a mermaid from Atlantica.

Her friends are fish and crabs – like Sebastien who, for some reason, has a strong Jamaican accent.

When looking for a human actress to play this fictional being, Disney was right to give the part to someone with the full package: the ability to sing, act and portray the kind of energy they want from the rebellious young mermaid.

In the past, in stories where race did matter, white people have acted in roles of people of colour.

In a Huffington Post article called 25 Times White Actors Played People of Color And No One Really Gave A S**t by Carolina Moreno and Riley Arthur, the authors gave these two examples among the others:

• Angelina Jolie played Mariane Pearl (a real-life journalist) in A Mighty Heart (2007). Pearl is a dark-complexioned Afro-Cuban. Jolie is not.

• Ben Affleck played Antonio J. Mendez (a real-life member of the CIA) in Argo (2012). Mendez is Mexican-American. Affleck is not.

I hand-picked these examples from the lot because they are relatively recent.

If you go through the list, you’ll see that this has been happening in movies for a long, long time.

I’m optimistic that as we move forward in time, we can look at the past and do better. This is our time to do better.

Where race is important to a story, we should not compromise the integrity of that story by casting aside people who can more legitimately fill those roles.

Where race isn’t important to a story, we should throw away our idea of how the world ‘should’ be, based on how things were represented in the past.

Can you imagine if we did things solely based on how they were done in the past?

Maybe this black Ariel is messing with an older generation of white people’s childhoods, but I think she’s going to do amazing things for an even bigger population of children of all complexions.

Columnist Taslim Jaffer writes monthly on multicultural connections.

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