Controversial or Refreshing: The Live Action Little Mermaid

Let’s make it clear: the live action Little Mermaid movie exists outside of the controversies that surround it. Halle Bailey is an incredible fit for the role of Ariel, and the movie features fantastic visuals, overall spot-on casting, and well-written, tear-jerking scenes. It is the epitome of a classic family movie, with something for all ages. In addition, we were given a refreshing cast that was, unlike the original, diverse. There were, however, a few interesting choices made in the creation of this movie that deserve attention, some of which are nitpicks and criticisms. For instance, some viewers ponder the choice to give Bailey a more “natural” looking wig, and others take issue with the choice to feature black characters in the film without discussing slavery. 

To the critics saying that Ariel’s hair should have been more red, we agree. Considering the fact that they gave Bailey a wig, a bright red one reminiscent of the original animated movie would have sparked more joy and nostalgia from the viewers. Although developing and adapting certain aspects of the movie was a crucial part of remaking it, the iconic red hair was an aspect that made the character Ariel stand out, and seeing that reflected through Bailey would have only further added to her portrayal of the role and overall experience of watching the movie. 

Simply put, nobody is looking to The Little Mermaid for historical accuracy.

An opinion receiving attention on a few right-wing reactionary news sources states that because the movie was set in the Caribbean during colonial times, it should have at least touched upon the chattel slavery present in the period. While the movie includes features of the colonial period, it is intended to be set in an almost timeless era to increase the fantasy element, similarly to most Disney princess projects. Simply put, nobody is looking to The Little Mermaid for historical accuracy. 

Additionally, nobody is looking to The Little Mermaid as a reminder of enduring generational Black trauma. The movie is intended to be a celebration of unity and aquatic beauty, and so including Black characters does not automatically mean there is a need to exploit Black trauma for an audience that is anticipating joy. Children are owed fantastical stories that represent them, and quite frankly Black people deserve representation in movies that are not boxed in by enslavement. 

A good portrayal of Ariel does not need to be white. Furthermore, the choice to make Ariel black only adds another role model to the minimal list of black female main characters in Disney movies. Although some may look at a film like the Little Mermaid and solely see it as an attempt to please a more modern audience while disregarding historical context, it is important to note that there have been free Black communities since long before enslavement, and it is fitting that the Disney utopia would capture that. Once again, Halle Bailey’s vocal range, acting abilities, and overall talent suited the role of Ariel perfectly, regardless of her race. 

This article also appears in our May/June 2023 print edition.