Disney dove into the summer blockbuster box office season with the long-awaited release of its live-action take on The Little Mermaid starring Halle Bailey. Casting a black actress in the role is historic, but it came with backlash from some longtime Disney fans.
Audiences got their first glimpse of the trailer showcasing Bailey nearly a year ago. She described the experience as a dream come true. Many fans cheered, but others jeered. Those critics questioned if a black woman could play a fictional, red-headed princess. The online backlash also had the hashtag "Not My Ariel" trending on multiple social media platforms.
Dr. Cathy Jackson, a film and media professor at Norfolk State University, followed the casting debate.
"I'm like why are they going on and on about this character who doesn't exist in real life? But we live in a society that is ready to jump on anything. I mean 1.5 million comments against Halle Bailey being the new black Ariel. Really?" Jackson told CBN News.
"When people protest about things, especially when it is a representation of people of color, they either say it is historically inaccurate, or that is not the way I remember," Jackson said. "That is what is really driving this. That she isn't red-haired, blue-eyed. It's not the 1989 Ariel that they remember. They want to reject her. That is what they say. But what is really behind it is the image is black. We don't want a black woman portraying our icons."
Rel Dowdell is a screenwriter, filmmaker, and professor at Hampton University. While fairytales are fun entertainment for children, Dowdell says it matters significantly that the star of this Disney film is an African American.
Bailey is only the second black actor to play a Disney princess on the silver screen, following Anika Noni Rose, who voiced the role of Tiana in the animated film The Princess and the Frog in 2009.
"Little Mermaid is based on a short story by Hans Christian Anderson, which was not really for an African American in that role. I think that if you look at the Disney timeline of African Americans, you look at Dumbo. You had the crows that were stereotypical. You look at The Jungle Book. The monkeys in there, are stereotypical. I look at it like this, there is always room for evolution. So for Disney to say we are giving Halle Bailey, who is a brown-skinned young lady in its starring role is boundlessly impactful, because a lot of young, black girls will see that with their parents, brother, and sisters and they will say, 'I see myself'," Dowdell told CBN News."
The impact played out in viral videos eight months ago, as parents shared images of their black children's joyful reaction to seeing the new mermaid for the first time. Many screamed with excitement, shouting, "She looks like me."
Dowdell said this casting is beyond consequential because it will impact people's morale in a positive way.
The Little Mermaid was released in theaters on Friday of Memorial Day Weekend. It's rated PG for scenes of action/peril and some images that could frighten young children.