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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?

  • The issue in modern times usually has to do with Tokenism. As, most critics complain that the change is not going to amount to anything in terms of exploring said minority group. For example should it matter that a fictional mermaid princess is black? Not really as the Atlantican's do not derive from our culture. They have their own completely fictional lore. It is not to say you cannot explore those topics, but it is usually a non sequitur that distracts from the stories main plot, which is a story of star crossed lovers. So, narratively speaking it does not matter if Ariel is black or white. Her race should not matter and there should be a greater focus on Halle Bailey's ability to play the role. Yet the coverage from the media put a great focus on Bailey's race, as opposed to her acting ability. Making the conversation about representation. We can see similar aspects with Beauty and the Beast and Star Wars Rise of Skywalker. Where both movies during promotion really talked about how they would have an openly queer character and how female characters would be in a leading role. Many people once again take annoyance with this as the representation of LGBTQ people is mostly a foot note at the end of the movie (that gets edited out when the movie premieres in a country that does not approve of such things.) Despite J.J. Abrams talking about how Poe and Finn are sexually active gay men, there is no exploration of that aspect. No romantic love interest for either of the characters. Which is why most of the time people accuse Disney and companies of pandering. Critics believe they are simply using diversity as a way to sell tickets.(Side not Star Wars has always had female leads, Ashoka Tano, Kreia, Princess Leia, and Meetra Surik. All powerful force users, who have a prominent role as hero and villians throughout the series. While these stories are limited to books and games, Disney could easily turn those into movies or continue exploring them in games.) Now the main reason people do not get nearly as upset about Will Smith being Dr. Neville and Morgan Freeman as Red is because is because them taking up the role did not focus on their race in Marketing. (not sure about Morgan Freeman and marketing as Shawshack predates me.) Samuel L. Jackson being Nick Furry was done because Stan Lee knew that he was a long time fan of the series, and he was placed in an alternate Marvel Universe. So, technically the white Nick Furry still exist and does continue to be used. Though the Ultimate universe Nick Furry has become the more prominent one used. Race swapping in movies and media is a tricky thing, mainly due to America's history with racism. As, yes, originally America did it to depict minority groups in offensive ways, and because minority groups were actually not allowed to be in films at one point. But in modern times I would compare it to J.K. Rowling saying Hermione is supposed to be black in the Harry Potter books or Dumbledore being gay. Despite being told something it is never shown or explored, so why should we care? I do not believe it is anything more than people trying to appeal to certain groups while putting the least amount of effort. It is the reason why instead of creating a new independent property or using an existing property that has character that is LGBTQ/minority group, they try to change an existing characters race like Superman. When DC comics could instead use characters like Icon or Static Shock and have a whole story that deals with the issues/experience of a black character. Race and sexuality appears to be mostly a tool to sell tickets for films. It is why people who are interested in such things have turned to other outlets. (From my understanding many people who like LGBTQ content have turned to comics,manga, video-games and novels as these mediums tend to have a more nuanced exploration of the topic. It is similar with diverse cast of characters.) – Blackcat130 4 months ago
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  • No group has a stranglehold on mermaids. I think the problem is that Europeans believe that they are the only ones who can cast differently. IN other words, it is okay for them to play other races or ethnicities but if a character is allegedly sacred to them, they get upset over the same thing they are doing. It is a very infantile way of thinking. But that is the privilege type of thinking that comes with imperialism. – Montayj79 4 months ago
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  • It is hard to forget the background Hollywood has with race. In my opinion, and what I have learned previously, if the race is integral to a background, plot or culture of a character then it should not be altered. If a character is written to be a specific ethnicity or if casting is intended to look for someone of a specific ethnicity, then that should be respected. Otherwise, it really does not quite matter. You would not use an all white cast for A Raisin in The Sun, that would cause loss of meaning regarding topics of race in the show. Tiana, Mulan and Moana all have cultural links to their stories, and Ariel does not. To assume that a black woman being cast as Ariel is for the “woke crowd” then is dismissing the blatant mistreatment of actors that are not white. To see an actor who is not white in pop culture is not (and shouldn’t be) a radical idea. – eaonhurley 4 months ago
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  • Seriously thinking about writing this. I just wrote one on here--"Misogynoir: The Silent Backbone of Hollywood," that covered some of these issues. I could really expand on those ideas with this topic. – Montayj79 3 months ago
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