Contributing writer for The Artifice.
Junior Contributor I
Casting a black Ariel: color-conscious or color-blind casting and should we be okay with it?
With Disney releasing the live-action The Little Mermaid next year, many opinions have emerged regarding the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel. Casting black actors for white characters is nothing out of the ordinary. Roles such as Morgan Freeman as Red in Shawshank Redemption, Will Smith as Dr. Robert Neville in I Am Legend, or recent Disney MCU choices such as Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury proved to be iconic roles in popular culture. I am curious to examine the differences and implications between color-blind casting and color-conscious casting. It is my understanding color-blind casting involves casting without any consideration for the actors’ racial identities, physical appearances, and other characteristics. Color-conscious casting would be the opposite in that casting directors actively consider these characteristics. These terms can be quite difficult to pin down exactly, and the same goes for the implications they have for diversity versus tokenism. Casting Halle Bailey as Ariel sparked so much inspiration and feel-good moments on social media when brown and black girls saw themselves in their favorite princess. However, many people still felt enraged at the supposed inaccuracy of the character’s casting or felt that Disney simply wanted to hit a diversity quota. I think about how white actors have played people of color for decades. From John Wayne as Genghis Khan in Conqueror (1956), Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra (1963), to modern productions like Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart (2007), or Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in the MCU, the film industry has a history of whitewashing and "blackface" when it comes to portraying BIPOC characters. These characters come from specific ethnic backgrounds which heavily influence their movement and life experiences in the world. For example, it wouldn’t make sense to cast anyone who isn’t Chinese for the live-action Mulan, the Chinese princess who saves her home country. The same can be said for other Disney princesses such as Pocahontas, Moana, Tiana, and Jasmine to name a few. However, it seems as though formerly cast white characters do not meet the same expectations like Ariel in The Little Mermaid. I would argue that the mermaids come from a fictional place, Atlantica, and therefore Ariel’s character can have some leeway in her representation. To what degree should people’s anger toward Ariel’s casting be validated? Why should viewers be bothered with a black Ariel?