The Little Mermaid is Black Now

It’s also OK to criticize performances by Black actors

Disney released an uninspired, murky-looking trailer for its live-action remake of The Little Mermaid this week, and the usual corners of the Internet responded: The Little Mermaid is Black! She can’t be Black! She is white!

While it’s probably true that Hans Christian Andersen, a Danish man who died 150 years ago, didn’t conceive of his Little Mermaid as Black, he also probably didn’t conceive of her having a best friend who’s a singing crab. This is Disney we’re talking about, now the most inclusive of corporations, so of course Ariel is Black. Halle Bailey (the daughter of Halle Berry and Pearl Bailey), rocks the red hair and the blue tail, and can sing. We have a Black Annie, and a Black Macbeth. Now we have a Black Little Mermaid.

To say it’s “not scientific” that there’s a Black Mermaid assumes two things: That mermaids are real, and that they aren’t Black. It’s like saying “there are no Black ghosts.” Regardless, I’m about as likely to watch the Little Mermaid reboot as I am to watch The Golf Channel, so this doesn’t affect me. I think it’s perfectly nice. For those who it does affect: Please take your complaints elsewhere.

We are in an entertainment era awash in Strong Black Women. And these aren’t Ruby Dee-style Strong Black Women, who must stand teary-eyed on their porches to hold their families together. We’re talking about warriors. Tomorrow sees the opening of ‘The Woman King’, featuring Viola Davis leading a phalanx of Dahomey warriors. In November, the Dora Milaje will re-arm in the Black Panther sequel. It’s not a modern fantasy or genre show unless Black people are kicking all kinds of ass.

Hollywood has clearly entered an inclusive era, where non-Latinos are no longer going to play Latinos, and non-Asians are no longer going to play Asians. No one will be doing Blackface on network TV anymore. This is the reality of the entertainment business now. No amount of bleating from basement men will change that.

But this brings a question: If strong Black characters are, if not the dominant reality in entertainment now, then at least dominant reality, at what point is it OK to criticize their performances? For example, Moses Ingram gave one of the worst TV performances of the year as Reva, or “Third Sister,” in the recent Obi-Wan Kenobi. She ruined every scene in which she appeared, making an anticipated show nearly unwatchable. This caused people to say racist things about her online, and for other people to attack people who weren’t saying racist things, merely critical things. Racism is not OK, but criticism is.

She didn’t crater the show because she’s Black, she cratered it because she was bad. It’s racist to say “there should be no Black people in Star Wars,” a completely unintelligible line of thinking. But it’s not racist to say “Moses Ingram was bad in Obi-Wan Kenobi.” Particularly not in a Star Wars universe that features Carl Weathers, Billy Dee Williams, and Forest Whitaker, among other Black Hollywood legends.

Even more recently, Neil Gaiman’s long-awaited adaptation of The Sandman has stirred up all sorts of controversy online for casting Black women in multiple roles that were originally not Black in the comics. Results were mixed. Lucien, the Librarian of the Dreaming, was a white man in the comics. In the show, a Black actress named Vivienne Acheampong played her, arguably the show’s second lead. And she’s quite good. In the comics, Sandman’s sister Death was a pale-skinned Goth chick. The show cast her as a Black woman, Kirby-Howell Baptiste, who’as also quite charming in the half-hour in which she appeared.

However, the back end of the show featured the story of Rose Walker, a “dream vortex” who, in the manner of all British sci-fi, is a magical girl who possesses the key to all reality. In the comics, Rose Walker, was, you guessed it, white. And blond. In the show, she’s a Black actress named Vanesu Samunyai. Samunyai isn’t bad in the same way as Moses Ingram, whose performance almost dares you to criticize it. She has charm and wit and warmth. But as the show becomes increasingly about her and less about the magnetic Sandman protagonist, I found myself thinking that she doesn’t really have the chops to hold together the narrative. When in scenes with Tom Sturridge and Boyd Holbrook, who play the show’s hero and villain respectively, she just cannot compete.

By saying Moses Ingram and Vanesu Samunyai just aren’t that good, you’re not saying “Black women shouldn’t appear in high-profile roles.” No one is saying this stuff about Viola Davis, or Octavia Spencer, or Regina King, or Letitia Wright, or dozens of other brilliant performers who are leading the greatest generation of Black actors ever.

For decades, Hollywood forced its shining female lights into fake screen romances with bland white dudes in high-waisted pants. Were we really supposed to believe electric ladies like Judy Garland or Gene Tierney were really pining for these second-rate vaudevillians? But there were so many parts for white men, and not every white man could be Humphrey Bogart or Burt Lancaster. Sometimes, they slotted cardboard cutouts into those roles. The same is true in today’s entertainment world. For every Teyonah Paris, there’s a Moses Ingram. Where will Halle Bailey fall on that spectrum? Who knows? But wherever it is, it will have nothing to do with her skin color.


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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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