Why I Have A Problem with a Black “Little Mermaid” (And, No, It’s Not What You Think!)

I have a problem with casting a young Black girl as The Little Mermaid. I don’t really care that there’s a Black actress playing this role, but I have a problem with the role itself. There’s a problem with shoving Black actors and actresses into traditionally White roles and that problem isn’t that the roles are meant only for White people, but because the roles were never created for Black people at all.

If that doesn’t make sense to you, consider that The Little Mermaid was written by a White gay man as an allegory for his own desire to find love in a world that was hostile to him. Adapting the play, the title role becomes female but remains White. Already the allegorical nature of the story is being lost; there is a (presumably) straight woman or girl in the title role. But now we shift the race from White to Black and we’re getting even further removed from the original allegorical intent of the story. And while a Black actress can portray the character just fine, the role was never about a Black woman at all and does no service to either Black people or gay White men; it satiates a shallow ideological impulse driven by cultural narcissism.

Instead of digging into the rich cultural tapestry of stories and myths from Africa, the Caribbean, and South America, Hollywood steadfastly clings to Western stories and tropes, endlessly adapting and recasting roles that were never created for the faces, races, and cultural backgrounds of the actors and actresses filling them. The end result is that we get movies, TV shows, and productions that flop–not because all people are racist, but because we’ve seen the story before and we recognize the inauthenticity of the effort. I saw Ghostbusters in the theater in the 1980s; I don’t need to see it again just because women are the lead characters. This is another reason why woke storytelling falls flat.

There are many myths in the Caribbean about mermaids. In Haiti, the Vodoun loa known as Lasirenn appears as a mermaid and her mythology incorporates African, European, and Native American folklore about mermaids. The same is true of Yemaya, the Satnteria orisha of the ocean; there is also Oshun who is the orisha of fresh-water streams and rivers. Many West African myths center on water spirits who take half-animal / half-human forms. There is a rich narrative vein for writers to draw from in these myths, but this would require effort on the part of writers and researchers and that means studios would have to foot the bill for trips to Haiti, Puerto Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, New Orleans, Miami, Africa, and numerous other places; language barriers would need to be confronted and brought down; a deeper knowledge of other peoples, other places, and other times would need to be acquired–and all of this costs money that studios would rather spend on special effects and big name actors. It would also mean we would have to explore other narrative structures beyond the monomyth. That could cost a studio a few million dollars and they might have to settle for the lesser of the four Chrises when casting the obligatory White male sidekick.

In short, Hollywood rehashes the same stories from the prevailing cultural influencers (i.e. Western culture / European nations) and shoves a Black actor or actress into the lead rule and then pats themselves on the back for adhering to diversity, inclusivity, and equity. But this still asserts that the stories and myths of the prevailing culture are superior to the cultural origins of the Black actors and actresses filling the lead roles. Casting a Black actor or actress in a lead role written for a White actor or actress does not truly constitute diversity, inclusivity, or equity.

So, do I have a problem with a Black actress cast as The Little Mermaid? Yes. But not because she’s Black, but because she deserves a role that is original and reflects her African heritage.

Shriek into the Void...

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