Halle Bailey to Play Ariel in Disney's Live-Action 'Little Mermaid'

Why the furor over a black mermaid?

I had no idea mermaids couldn’t possibly be African American. Come to think of it, I had no idea mermaids were white either, but apparently, they are. Apparently, mermaids are exclusively white.

No one knew this, of course, except those nitwits who expressed their outrage over Disney’s recent decision to cast Ariel — the Little Mermaid we all know and love — as well, a black instead.

Remake of 'The Little Mermaid' Casts Halle Bailey as Ariel

#NotMyAriel, they said. #NotMyMermaid.

Thirty years ago when Ariel first splashed onto movie screens nationwide, she was a redhead with big blue eyes. For the record, there are a few black people with blue eyes and red hair. And for the record, Ariel was a fish. Yes she sported a purple bra made of seashells, but the fact remains she had no legs. She sported a light green fish tail.

Ariel, you see, was an animation.

Even in the newest Disney version, she’s a fish. She’s just obviously a black one, played by a decidedly black actress and R&B singer, one Halle Bailey. Bailey is half of the singing duo Chloe x Halle — talented enough to open for Beyonce and Jay-Z on their tour last year and perform “America the Beautiful” at this year’s Super Bowl.

Albeit this is the first time Disney has cast a woman of color in one of its live-action adaptations to play what heretofore has been a white princess, these are the facts.

Chloe Bailey and Halle Bailey (right), known as the singing duo Chloe x Halle, attend the premiere of Disney’s “The Lion King” at Dolby Theatre on July 9, 2019, in Hollywood, Calif. MATT WINKELMEYER / GETTY IMAGES
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Why is that problematic?

RELATED: Atlanta native Halle Bailey to play Ariel in ‘The Little Mermaid’

Cona Marshall, an assistant professor of religion at the University of Rochester and former professor of Africana Studies at Lebanon Valley College, said the focus is all wrong. Instead of criticizing Bailey, we should be commending her.

If we truly stood on the concept of equity, she said, we would first congratulate Halle Bailey on her artistry, Marshall said.

Cona Marshall is an assistant professor of religion at the University of Rochester and former professor of Africana Studies at Lebanon Valley College. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Representation matters as evidenced by the past three presidential campaigns,” she said. “What is the uproar? Might a black actor not be able to capture and transcend a story about a teenager wanting desperately to assimilate to land culture at the expense of her voice?”

Marshall said she is not only rooting for Bailey, but she would encourage all African American actors to be bold enough to take on characters they’ve been told they cannot portray.

“I’m not surprised at the polarized coverage of casting a black woman as a fictional folklore character,” she said. “As a religion scholar, we’ve seen the laments over Santa Claus not being white. These sentiments fuel ‘minority takeover’ crisis rhetoric by white supremacists, which only affirms America’s poor treatment of minorities. These conversations are never solely about film, but about our social consciousness of who gets to be the protagonist, the princess, the authority — power.”

Susan Peppers-Bates is an associate professor of philosophy at Stetson University. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

It didn’t take long for the Twittersphere to light up with Bailey bashing.

“You are the worst choice that Disney has ever made,” one person tweeted, using the hashtag #NotMyAriel.

Tweeted another: “You will never be Ariel.”

RELATED: Disney’s Freeform pens open letter defending ‘Little Mermaid’ casting

In a statement to NBC News, director Rob Marshall said Bailey was tapped for the role after an extensive search.

“It was abundantly clear that Halle possesses that rare combination of spirit, heart, youth, innocence, and substance — plus a glorious singing voice — all intrinsic qualities necessary to play this iconic role,” he said.

Some likened Bailey’s casting to singer Brandy portraying the role of Cinderella in the 1997 TV film that also starred Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother.

My daughters and I loved that one, as I’m sure every other little black girl in the country did.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Susan Peppers-Bates, director of the Africana Studies Program at Stetson University, said the controversy is reminiscent of the backlash in 2012 over a black actress playing Rue in “The Hunger Games” despite the book clearly describing her as dark skinned.

“The white racist imaginary has cast black women as a denigrated other to justify slavery and oppression since our nation’s founding,” she said. “Sadly, just as many white audience members could not identify with or care about a young black girl’s death in ‘The Hunger Games,’ they are not ready to accept a beautiful and talented heroine into their beloved Disney mythology if she is African American.”

Peppers-Bates said America should be celebrating cracking the white glass ceiling of beauty imagery, albeit still within a narrative focused on traditional gender roles.

Cona Marshall agreed.

She said the white Ariel will not cease to exist from our cultural memory and wondered like many of us what’s the fear in having a black Ariel.

“The fear that Bailey, a BET, MTV and Grammy Award singer, might not be able to carry out the vocal capacities of Ariel?” she asked. “Perhaps it’s that she isn’t beautiful enough? Maybe she’s not fishy enough?”

Whatever the answer, Marshall said it’s next to impossible to disentangle the negative reactions from racism.

“I welcome Disney’s second African American visual representation of a princess,” she said. “Perhaps, in the future, the uproar would consist of not centering these princesses’ lives on men. One day black women will be ‘part of your world.’ “

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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