Does Disney have a race problem?
Clare Lewis discusses the representation of lead characters in Disney films and questions the depiction of key characters.
With awards season over, the talk is still on Hollywood and the films we can expect this year, with one particularly controlling the headlines. The Little Mermaid is a long anticipated real-life adaption of a Disney classic but the casting of Halle Bailey as the protagonist Ariel has critics up in arms. Within the first hours of the film trailer’s release, there were thousands online haters claiming Bailey as unfit for the role because of her race. Why can the focus not be on how Halle Bailey is serving as an incredible role to young black children who will finally see themselves represented on screen? Or to appreciate how the film industry is evolving to portray a more joyful side of the Black experience by inserting Black actors in more fantastical roles, a genre that once heavily neglected the incorporation of Black actors as if mythical creatures could only be white? I think people are really missing the point, mermaids are fictional characters not humans. Therefore, their race is not crucial to their character and the idea that they would be white, or of any particular human race, is irrational.
It seems that this has become a pattern in the film industry: whenever a black person is cast as a previously white character, the perception is that they take the role away from a “canonically accurate” white actor. Unfortunately, it seems that the challenges facing Black talent extend far beyond access and representation. Black professionals like Halle face ongoing barriers and inequalities, even once they’re “in the door.” This does nothing but illuminate the fact that when considering characters, a white visage is automatically the default, even when the presence of whiteness in the situation, plot, or setting is not at all important.
'It seems that the challenges facing Black talent extend far beyond access and representation.'
Whiteness gets multiplicity of storyline, genre, a multitude of films and television shows that speak to all ages ranges and interests. However, all of which are represented by white characters. Where is this diversity for Blackness? Take The Princess and The Frog as an example. Tiana, Disney’s first Black animated protagonist, features onscreen for a mere 40 minutes. More to the point, the majority of the time, as you probably know, Tiana is a frog. Plus, with the little screen time she does get, Tiana’s character is depicted through the white gaze and has to wade through a whole swamp in order to be seen at all, let alone as a Black princess. It is incredibly problematic that the world’s biggest children’s entertainment company has yet to provide a film that features a character that stays a Black person throughout. And now, upon the release of the first Disney film to predominately revolve around an actual Black character, rather than celebrating the beauty of Black womanhood, or even Blackness in general, the white gaze looks to diminish all that it represents because it doesn’t accurately reflect a cartoon.
'It is incredibly problematic that the world’s biggest children’s entertainment company has yet to provide a film that features a character that stays a Black person throughout.'
It has recently been announced that Yara Shahidi will be playing Tinker Bell in Disney’s adaptation of Peter Pan and, in response to online backlash she commented: “I think oftentimes people think of diversity and inclusions as threatening or jeopardizing the quality of the story. Instead see how beautifully they can be interwoven together to create something that impacts even more people.” Yara’s words signal that racial difference doesn’t only complement but substantially enrich narratives and that we must consider our knowledge of ‘stories’ not as static but as a means to evolve by accepting difference. It is this that emphasises that it truly does matter where imagination begins in the mind. It matters whether that mind can imagine full Black personhood, or if that imagination is still constrained by unconscious bias and internalised stereotypes. We should celebrate Halle and Yara for making their experiences visible and for what they are achieving by addressing anti-racist discourses in their worlds (both on and off-screen). It is vital to highlight race as possessing natural beauty, strength, and intelligence and not consider it as antagonising the foundations of a story.