The little Mermaid is the fairy-tale story of a mermaid, Ariel, who wished to be human to take her chance at love with a prince.
It is a tale that has been characterised by images of a red-haired, blue-eyed cartoon mermaid, who has long been portrayed as white or Caucasian.
Actress Halle Bailey, a talented American singer and Beyoncé’s protégé, was announced as the star of the film in July 2019.
But rather than being impressed by the 22-year-old starlet’s huge role, the reception of the project revealed the deep racism that underlies film and entertainment.
There was backlash from mostly anonymous internet trolls, who took to Twitter using the hashtag #notmyariel as they rejected the idea of an African-American star playing the role.
The conversation from trolls remained persistently negative, insulting and down-right racist since the announcement, with a majority of the black community rallying around Halle and defending her against the naysayers.
“By now, we know it is not unusual to see racist responses whenever a person of colour is cast in a role considered “traditionally” white,” CNN Entertainment notes, adding: “While there are plenty of legitimate reasons to dislike a movie, these critics often hide their discomfort behind other thin arguments, claiming historical or cultural accuracy or, of all things, science.”
In the report, CNN states that the argument that The Little Mermaid is a Danish story’ is not enough because ideally, it is all fantasy and not based on real life in any way.
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“The original Little Mermaid story was written by Hans Christian Andersen and first published in 1837. If we are going to dignify this argument, according to the text, Ariel and the rest of her mermaid kin are from “far out in the ocean” at the “bottom of the sea.” So, not Denmark or anywhere near it,” CNN notes.
In an interview with Variety magazine earlier this year, Halle doubled down on her excitement about taking on the role. She revealed that she had adored the fairy-tale growing up, and could relate to it in many ways, even pretending to be Ariel every time she went swimming as a child.
“Her sense of longing, her searching for herself, was something that I could resonate with. She knew where she wanted to go, and she was not going to let anybody stop her,” Halle said.
She was comforted by kind words from her grandparents, who told her of their struggles with racism and discrimination.
“It was an inspiring and beautiful thing to hear their words of encouragement, telling me, ‘You do not understand what this is doing for us, for our community, for all the little black and brown girls who are going to see themselves in you’,” Halle said.
Variety notes that although the backlash and criticism stung, Halle’s tight-knit family supported and encouraged her throughout.
The trailer of the film was released in mid-September, to applaud and support from fans, but the same bitter backlash that has persisted years into the creation of the project.
“The trailer itself appears to have become a target for internet trolls: after it collected 1.5m “dislikes” in two days, YouTube has disabled the thumbs-down “dislike” button, while dozens of comments below it are parodying a positive response by citing dialogue from other films,” The Guardian notes.
But the history of racism in the film runs deep, from the portrayal of stereotypical, mocking images of black people and poor representation that has gone on for decades.
“Through most of the 20th century, images of African-Americans in advertising were mainly limited to servants like the pancake-mammy Aunt Jemima and Rastus, the chef on the Cream of Wheat box,” Google Arts and Culture notes.
The study adds: “Many researchers argue that media portrayals of minorities tend to reflect whites’ attitudes toward minorities and, therefore, reveal more about whites themselves than about the varied and lived experiences of minorities. Producing films in this way is what leads to a singular perspective and opinion.”
It goes further to the lack of recognition black actors receive for their work, one such case being the culmination of outrage after an all-white Oscars nominee list in 2016. The hashtag #OscarsSowhite was used to call out the award show.
One of how racism in film is combatted is by the creation of informative movies and films that educate the public on the problem at hand.