When news broke last week that Halle Bailey had been cast as Ariel for the new live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, I was thrilled. I’m a big fan of the show Grown-ish and her character Sky Forster has a good mix of comedic and dramatic timing. Bailey can sing, and images of red locks flowing under ocean waves is going to be a whole fashion thing come 2020. Of course, I wasn’t surprised that Twitter racists were mad—these are the same people who were mad about black stormtroopers in Star Wars, black Starfire on Teen Titans and black Hermione from Harry Potter. So let’s set aside the racists for a minute and discuss what we should really be ready to get mad about: Disney casting Halle is fantastic, but we really need to be up in arms about who they will cast as her prince.
The year 2019 is the 10-year anniversary of The Princess and the Frog, the first Disney movie with a black princess. I wrote this at the time about the movie.
Tiana is the ONLY princess in Disney lore to have a prince that is not the same color as her. (Pocahontas is not considered a Disney princess!) Initially Disney producers planned to hook her up with a white Frenchmen named Harry, but upon getting some initial complaints, they quietly changed him to middle-eastern sounding “Prince Naveen” during pre-production. Apparently Disney just can’t bring themselves to give little black girls and black boys royalty that looks like them. So I can’t bring myself to spend any of my money on taking any little girls or boys in my life to their movie.
There was no excuse to not cast a black prince for The Princess and the Frog other than Hollywood executives’ racism. Remember, this was 2009; Disney could’ve cast Corbin Bleu from the insanely popular in-house High School Musical movies, or even Justin Guarini from American Idol to play a French Creole prince for Tiana and that movie would have been a hit. Instead, she got racially ambiguous Prince Naveen from some imaginary country of Maldonia (didn’t The Avengers, another Disney property, destroy their sister country or something?) Of course, that was 10 years ago; things have gotten better since then, right?
In the last decade, the House of Mouse has gotten better at racial diversity, but only in terms that fundamentally disrespect black dollars and only in terms that make white consumers comfortable. Yes, Halle as Ariel is fantastic, but it’s not the first time that a Disney-helmed project swapped out a white redhead for a black one. MJ (who is an obvious stand in for Spider-Man’s longtime love Mary Jane Watson) in the new Disney-fied Spider-Man movies is played by Zendaya. In fact, going back to Brandy playing Cinderella in 1997 or a Dania Ramirez playing Cinderella on ABC’s Once Upon a Time, there have been plenty of black and brown princesses showing up onscreen. You know what hasn’t happened? Black princes. Brandy’s prince was Filipino; Once Upon a Time’s Cinderella’s prince was white (Tiana’s prince, Naveen, was played briefly by a black actor).
But this trend of diversity by half has been pervasive throughout Disney’s programming, from the small to the big screen. On the Disney Channel’s Lab Rats, Tru Jackson VP and even Ant Farm, all the little black girls had white boys as love interests, or in the case of Lab Rats, Leo’s mother was married to a white man. The upcoming live-action Lady and the Tramp movie stars Tessa Thompson and Charlie Bean as her husband. Don’t even get me started on the decade-long ABC nighttime line up of Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder. Which brings us back to the casting of Ariel and her as-yet-to-be-named prince.
This is not some rant about interracial relationships in television and movies, but when the interracial couples only look one way, it seems like it’s more about reinforcing pre-existing racial and sexual dynamics than actual diversity. At its core, the casting of Ariel’s black prince is about representation and respecting the black consumer and the black consumer’s dollar. Disney has a long unmistakable record of consistently failing to cast black women and men together as romantic leads. A black princess should have a black prince just like every other Disney princess has a prince of her own race (except Pocahontas because that’s vaguely historical). Little black girls deserve to be princesses and see a prince that looks like their father or brother or uncle loving on a black woman. By the way, I know plenty of little black boys who love them some Frozen and any other Disney product, and they deserve to see themselves as princes. If there were princes available in 2009 who were overlooked, there is no excuse for not having a black prince in 2019.
Check the Instagram of any tween girls that you know, and tell me that a Caribbean-themed Little Mermaid with Keith Powers, Stephan James or Alfred Enoch as the prince won’t break the box office. The music alone will bring in millions. That three-part harmony between Halle as Ariel, Lizzo as Ursula (of COURSE) and Sean Paul as Sebastian (I’m just dreaming now) for the remix of Kiss the Girl has me tapping my feet as I write this column.
Of course, none of that happens if we sit back and let Disney take our money while they dole out dribs and drabs of white-approved diversity that we just lap up without question. We’ve seen in the last decade that Disney, like any large corporation, will not respect the black consumer or dollar unless we protest and bring our concerns as consumers to their attention. If we do not raise our voices, Disney will cast a white prince or some racially ambiguous man from a made up country without a thought.
If years of #BlackGirlMagic, #OscarsSoWhite and #BlackBoyJoy mean anything, we should know that our children, and yes, even we adults, deserve and need a #DisneyBlackPrince and representation, too. If Disney casts some random white man as the prince with Halle Bailey and black folks still give this movie money, they’ll need to replace “Under the Sea” with “The Sunken Place.” That would be the only honest description of where we’d be as consumers.