“The Little Mermaid” and Disney’s dilemma: Why no Black prince?

“The Little Mermaid” and Disney’s dilemma: Why no Black prince?

I took my baby girl to see Halle Bailey in Disney’s live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid.” Now I have unnecessary explaining to do. 

Getting a three-year-old excited to see a Disney movie is never a hard sell. Add that to the fact that she and my wife both watched the trailer a zillion times, mouthing the songs aloud with ear-to-ear grins. I was excited as well, as Halle and Chole Bailey, actress and singers in thr group Chole x Halle, have grown into America’s little sisters. Seeing the talented duo win in their joint and separate ventures (Chloe was recently seen in “Swarm”) makes something feel right about this racist, sexist, divided country, so I was sold. 

I’m old enough to remember the first “Little Mermaid” from back in ’89 and to know that Disney princesses were historically white women. It took Disney, a company founded in 1923 all the way up until 2009, to introduce its first Black princess, Tiana, in the original animated film “The Princess and the Frog.”

“Hey baby,” my wife said, “Come watch this ‘Little Mermaid’ trailer.” 

And then I prepared to watch for the first time and her thousandth. After clicking the link, I was introduced to the cast that makes up the film. Halle as Ariel, of course, Melissa McCarthy as the deviously manipulating Ursula, Jonah Hauer-King as the charming Prince Eric, Daveed Diggs as the annoyingly lovable crustation Sebastian and Javier Bardem as the ever-so-powerful King Triton. Diverse, star-studded, with all the bells and whistles. 

“Hey baby,” I asked, “Am I tripping, or is the prince and her father white?” 

“I think her father is Latino.” 

I Googled Javier Bardem. “Nah, that dude is Spanish, like he’s from Spain, which kinda means white in America.” 

We laughed before agreeing to take our daughter to see the film anyway. After all, she was so excited and had viewed the trailer with joy a ridiculous number of times, so there was no turning back.

The Little Mermaid, 2023 (Disney)“Last thing, and then I’ll put this to rest,” I said, “You know Morgan Freeman is still alive, and James Earl Jones is putting in work, and my favorite actor Forest Whitaker would probably be the best king you could find for a little Black girl, but I guess Disney is gonna Disney.” 

“We are still going to give it a chance.” 

America, business and especially Hollywood continues to make everything about race.

Movie day arrived. And my small family, including me, my wife, the baby and Auntie, hit the theater. 

Don’t make this about race, don’t make this about race, please don’t make this about race – swirled around in my head. The attempt is easier said than done because America, business and especially Hollywood continues to make everything about race. 

Seeing little Black girls in red wigs and mermaid dresses snapped me out of my thoughts. It made me think about the first time I saw “Do the Right Thing.” That feeling you get when you realize that you actually matter in cinema. Before that Spike Lee classic, I never thought there would be a film full of characters that dressed like me, obsessed over Air Jordans like me and dealt with racist police officers like me. I must have watched it on bootleg 20,000 times. Maybe my daughter will feel this way about seeing Halle portray Ariel. 

The new live-action “Little Mermaid” is very similar to the earlier Disney version. Ariel, forever curious about humans, saves a dude from a shipwreck. They fall in love to the point where she trades her beautiful voice and displays the willingness to abandon her sea royalty, ability to breathe underwater, beautiful tail, culture, family and all of her friends in an effort to pursue that love. The prince doesn’t have to give up anything, like he doesn’t even have to learn how to swim underwater, so you know all of the holiday dinners will take place with his side of the family. How fair is that? 

At the beginning of the film, we’re introduced to a rainbow collection of mermaids, from Asian to African – in what made-up a kind of all lives matter pool of mermaids. And then Queen Selina, Eric’s adopted mother, played by Noma Dumezweni, is also a Black woman (who does not have a Black king as a husband). But I’m not going to make it about race. All the races are here in some way or another – every box seemed to be checked, even though we weren’t there to check boxes, we were there to have fun. Sadly, race dictates fun. 

Because I don’t think it’s strange to question why the first Black Ariel had a European (white) father; her aunt Ursula is white and sets her sights on a white prince. What is the point of having a Black little mermaid if she’s just going to be thrown into a center of a white world? Ariel could not even save a Black dude from the shipwreck, because everyone on Prince Eric’s boat is white – she doesn’t even have a Black option. What is Disney trying to say? 

If Black lives matter, then shouldn’t Black families too?

Would giving “The Little Mermaid” a Black family turn the production into an undesirable Black movie? Both “Black Panther” films did extremely well with a mostly Black cast, as they rank amongst the top grossing Marvel movies. If Black lives matter, then shouldn’t Black families too? 

The Little Mermaid, 2023The Little Mermaid, 2023 (Disney)My daughter sings and dances to all of the songs, bouncing back and forth between her seat, my lap, her mother’s lap and Auntie’s arms. Her tiny face lights up the beauty of Ariel ripping through the cold sea, at Scuttle’s bizarre rap song and the quirkiness of Sebastian’s rants. Bailey does an amazing job, singing like an angel while mastering the delicate cadence of Ariel, and the film is beyond beautiful. Baby girl had a ball, and I wasn’t going to ruin it for her like they ruined it for Jessica. 

Jessica was a student in my writing class a few semesters ago. A young Black woman from west Baltimore, she identifies as awkward and loves anime. During the course, Jessica told a story of a time when she attended Miryokucon, an anime convention dressed as Goku from “Dragonball Z.” 

“I was so proud of my costume,” she explained, “Until some white kids dressed like Goku as well surrounded me, screaming that I looked stupid because Goku could never be a n****r.”

“Wait,” I chimed in. “They even racist at Comic-Con? What the hell! Really?” 

“Professor, this wasn’t Comic-Con; this was Miryokucon,” she corrected. “But yes, they are racist at Comic-Con too.” 

“What you do?” another student asked with a raised eyebrow. 

“I told those dumbasses that Goku isn’t white either so if I looked stupid, I didn’t, then they looked stupid too and to get the f**k out of my face,” she answered. “They left me alone, but it still ruined my experience.” 

I was not going to ruin this mermaid experience for my baby.

I just sat back in my chair and watched, wondering how cool it would be if Disney or Amazon created some special 3-D glasses that turned all of the white characters Black so that even when they made their attempts at diversity, Black parents like me didn’t have to leave theaters having to explain colorism to their kids. 

After watching the live-action “Little Mermaid,” a conversation about race will be had at some point, which has been a constant for Disney films. The singer Brandy wasn’t even allowed to have a Black prince when she played Disney’s “Cinderella” (Paulo Montalban, a Filipino American actor portrays the Prince) the same as Tiana’s prince voiced by Bruno Campos, in “The Princess and the Frog.” Maybe Disney doesn’t believe in Black fairy tales? Or maybe they feel like the multiracial fairy tale is an easier sell at this point. 

Either way, I settled for my daughter having the opportunity to feel represented in a world where there’s no such thing as a regular Black Disney prince and will try to push that conversation off until she’s old enough to understand why Hollywood still has the need to shy away from Blackness, even in diversity efforts. 

Because at this tender age, if my baby smiles, I smile, which is what these cartoons are about anyway.

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