I liked her. The trailer dropped and I didn't quite like the trailer, but I liked her.
Hear me out, now.
I think Halle Bailey can absolutely, 100% work as a mermaid. A little mermaid, if you like. There's just something in the way she's set up that convinces me she can pull off the “underwater creature” effect for the purposes of a fairy tale.
What I didn't like in the trailer was …everything else. The criticisms are many and I'll get to the politics in a bit, but mainly she didn't feel like she belonged in the setting and the setting itself didn't feel real. More like a prop. Even the way her hair moves in the water looks fake. I'm not sure if that's because the rendering isn't done yet in the movie, but it really distracted me. Plus, the colors are all dead. Realism is great but the real world is full of color.
And as I hope I've proven in my comic Without Moonlight, you can totally be in a gorgeous place and have gruesome, realistic stuff happen that are very real. I don't get that from what the trailer (admittedly too short) showed us. Even for a teaser, it should have been …well, colorful! Unpolluted underwater landscapes tend to be vibrant, even if there's just the water and the sandy sea floor. And the world of The Little Mermaid is supposed to be lush with underwater life if I remember right.
So that put me off even though I'd totally watch more Black Ariel.
Let's move to the politics. There's a lot of loud debate on whether Ariel should be black or not. Her original concept was as a white girl and she comes from a fairytale by a super white, north European guy (Hans Christian Andersen). For me that's a flawed argument (though not without its basis) for two reasons:
Disney sanitized the hell out of Andersen's Little Mermaid to the point the fairytale is unrecognizable. So to claim that Ariel should be white just because she is inspired by Andersen's story doesn't hold much water (no pun intended). She was, however, initially conceived as white in this Disney version, and many generations of children grew up with a white mermaid princess. That, to me, is more sincere in that if you're looking to make a FAITHFUL live action version of the animated feature, then you should stay faithful to the character's design. The argument gains strength if everything else about the live action version remains faithful to the original, except for Ariel's race. It's like snipping off a cutout from that worldbuilding's fabric and shoving in a different piece of cloth, and expect it to look good. If Disney's plan was to make a live action recreation of the animated original, frame by frame, they shouldn't change a thing regarding character design, including race. Just changing Ariel and then going faithful to every other aspect of the source material is just giving fodder to everyone that feels this is only done for identity politics and a quick cash grab.
But even keeping Ariel white and being totally faithful is boring and lazy and overdone, and thus annoying.
And here's where I'd like to posit my thoughts on this, and ask that you hear me out.
I feel that the original character design of the underwater world is in fact the “cut out” that has been shoved in, rather than this live action version. I'll explain.
Everything that is underwater is coded Jamaican. The underwater landscape feels very Caribbean fringing reef. The songs have a Caribbean feel to them and so do the fish and so does Sebastian. So the entire worldbuilding would push for the underwater characters to be black Caribbean. ALL OF THEM. From Triton to Ariel's sisters to Ariel herself. They have no business being white with that setup.
Why didn't we see it? Because we were primed to expect white characters in any setting unless the creators specifically did their homework and cared to be faithful to how their world works. Granted, a fairytale and fantasy doesn't need to obey such rules, but when your worldbuilding is that consistent, then maybe it would add to its lush richness if you did obey them. More so if you want to make a bid for realism so all in all, a black Ariel is better in the Disney iteration of the fairy tale, concept wise, in my humble opinion.
What about above water?
Personally I'd love for everyone to be Caribbean, but given the estimated era where the story takes place (roughly 18th century), we are in the age of colonialism and the Caribbean was alive with all sorts of Europeans, so having Eric stay white gets a pass. If you want to be realistic. And, if you're accomplished enough, you could even discuss that ugly part of white history without sounding preachy.
However… why be so limited?
If you want a black Ariel, why not go for broke? Don't remake The Little Mermaid with your animated feature as your basis. Have the balls to have an all non-white cast, set in the Caribbean or why not, in the great barrier reef in Australia, in the pre-colonial era, and only use Aboriginal people, lore, and social structures to tell your story. Give your audiences new horizons!
Or, go super faithful to Andersen's concept and recreate the underwater world of Denmark. And keep Ariel white.
This is gorgeous too.
What is the point of all this discussion?
That it's not the character design race swap that is the problem. It's that it is lazy, and thus feels disingenuous and more political than creatively inspired. And is that wrong? Eh, that's a discussion for a different article. It's not very artistically sound, at least the way I see it.
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Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Sept. 17, 2022
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