“The Little Mermaid can be black, you racist!” Disney has cast a black actress in the lead role for its latest live-action remake and predictably there is a supposed backlash against the decision. I say “supposed” because it seems the vast majority of the “outrage” is actually coming from people that are defending the decision and are convinced there is a racist around every corner throwing a fit over the color of the mermaid’s skinned upper half. This is the new trend in media today. Now, I’m certain that if you scour the internet you can indeed find people that are actually unhappy with the decision based solely on the color of her skin for racist reasons alone. You can find someone outraged about anything on the internet. But is it a popular opinion? Do people really care? Is it the “Conservative” opinion that naturally must be opposed by every good “Liberal?” Does it merit the extreme criticism and assumptions coming from the other “side”? Are there any actual valid arguments against casting a black actress in the role? Haven’t critics of casting white actors in roles portraying people of other races reacted the exact same way? Could it even be possible that the studio itself or other vested interests are hyping up the controversy as a means of promotion? After all, such controversy is sure to increase ticket sales and views upon the film’s release. Such accusations also give the film cover if it is poorly done or if it does not perform well because the failures can be blamed on “racism.” Could it all be a manufactured outrage? These are all good questions to ask and possibilities to consider.
The most interesting question regarding this topic is probably the most basic – Is there some sort of criteria we can all agree is valid to help determine whether or not a character in a story can/should be a particular race/sex/religion/physical appearance etc.? Let’s explore it a bit instead of just resorting to the extreme positions of either “Any character can be X” or “If a character was originally X, then they must always be X.”
Like most things, the reasonable position seems to be found in the middle with well-examined consideration. The extreme of “Any character can be X” doesn’t hold up well, for if there is a film to be made about Martin Luther King Jr. it makes sense that a casting call would not be made for red-headed females to try out for the MLK role. The same probably holds true for some fictional characters. If the story is about the struggles of a Chinese female immigrant to America in the 1800s, it is probably reasonable to not include black males in the consideration for this lead character. These are deliberately obvious examples that suggest there is some measure of truth to the idea of keeping consistent with the essence of a character even as you move further away from the realm of necessity and into the realm of subjective preference. The takeaway is that if the physical/cultural trait is essential to what makes the character the character, then it probably should remain true to the character as much as possible.
We have had examples in the past of actors with specific physical traits and races playing characters based on real people of differing physical traits and races. English actor Alec Guinness playing Prince Feisal, an Arab, in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, Scottish actor Gerard Butler playing Spartan King Leonidas in ‘300’ (with a barely hidden Scottish accent), and Elizabeth Taylor playing Cleopatra, the last Egyptian Pharaoh in ‘Cleopatra’ are a few examples. Has there been and is there still criticism of these “white” actors playing these roles? You bet there is. They call it “whitewashing” and it has been a race-based criticism around for quite awhile. While these are actors playing a role, the criticism holds that given the characters are “people of color” so too should be the actors that represent them. As the criticism goes, not finding actors that reflect the race/culture of the character is indicative of disrespecting that race/culture, appropriating it, or erasing its uniqueness from history. Are these critics correct in this assessment? I suppose it is a perfectly valid opinion to have, however it probably should be held in all instances, not be selectively applied. If an Arab actor were cast to play Winston Churchill and made to look like him would the same people find it wrong and insulting? What if it was an Arab production? Would the people that approved of Alec Guinness as Prince Feisal also approve of an Arab actor playing Winston Churchill, provided the actor did as good a job as Alec Guinness did in his performance? In either case it seems reasonable to at least say that if a character is based on a real person or if a fictional character is supposed to be of a particular race or culture, then the actor portraying that character would best be of the same race or culture or at least be capable of being made to look like it. There must be some standard of realism and believability for the audience, as nobody wishes to pay good money to watch a film that feels like a school play with miscast characters, inaccurate wardrobes, and acting that does not do the character or the culture justice. Above all, the performance must meet the requirements of the character. If it does not, and the film suffers for it, can we at least agree that this may be a valid critique not based on racism, sexism, etc.?
How about the other extreme of “If a character was originally X, then they must always be X?” This holds more for the fictional characters. What are some considerations here? Perhaps culture or classes or time periods in which the character is apart may have some impact on determining whether or not a certain actor or actress is a good fit for the role. The history and importance of the character may also be an issue. Can a mermaid be black? Of course a mermaid can be black, they are a completely fake being. Does this mean that people have no reason whatsoever other than pure racism to prefer the mermaid in “The Little Mermaid” not be black? The story is based on the fairy tale from Hans Christian Andersen. In his original work, the Little Mermaid is described as white on many occasions. Andersen of course was part of a European “white” culture and his tales have become examples of the literary tradition from that culture. People of all cultures naturally like to preserve that which comes from their traditions, so some people may see this casting as an example of deliberately trying to erase this culture and they therefore oppose it for this reason. I don’t think you can separate this from the larger “culture war” debate; a big part of which is the notion that traditional Western culture is “under attack” by forces opposed to its moral, philosophical, and cultural foundations. As for wanting to preserve traditions in storylines, I think there is something to this phenomenon overall, as is evidenced by the “whitewashing” backlash described above coming from the opposite perspective, however perhaps it does not apply as well to the “Little Mermaid” example since Disney already mutilated the original story, changed the ending completely, and contradicted the moral message with their more popular animated 1989 version of the tale. If we are to worry about erasing traditions, that ought to be more important than the skin color of the fictional mermaid. After all, it is the moral foundations of the western tradition that is of the most importance in preserving. Also, the myth of the mermaid is found in more places than in Europe. Africa has its share of mermaid stories. I wonder what the reaction would be if one of these African mermaid myths were to be adapted for the big screen and, for example, the traditional depiction of Mami Wata were replaced with the white-skinned, red-haired mermaid Ariel of Disney?
History is filled with examples of stories, people, and characters being changed and interwoven into new cultures. We can look at white/Chinese/black Jesus as an example. Different cultures depict Jesus as reflective of themselves in their art. This example is perhaps fitting, since Jesus is meant to be a universal Lord and Savior. So long as the core message of Jesus is preserved, it matters little how Jesus is depicted physically in art or as a character. In our storytelling today, there is no exception to this rule of history and many characters have been getting changes and reimaginings in recent decades. A good many of them have been played by actors of different races or sexes of the original character. As should be expected, some of these changes are good and get accepted by fans, and some not so much. It isn’t always about physical traits like race or sex either. When Heath Ledger was initially announced as cast for the role of Joker in the Christopher Nolan Batman movie, many fans freaked out and did not like it. Obviously this had nothing to do with race or sex, but rather it was because they had a particular image of Heath Ledger at the time and it did not satisfy their expectations for the character that they love. Most of these fans were pleased to be mistaken upon the film’s release, as Ledger delivered a satisfying performance in the role by most accounts. I don’t think there is anything intrinsically wrong with being an originalist and wanting adaptations and subsequent stories to be as consistent as possible with the original material. Variation is bound to happen however (and in my opinion this can be a good thing) so die-hard fans shouldn’t stress about it too much. The notion that such apprehension or skepticism is always racist or sexist in nature however when race or sex is involved is ludicrous and is perhaps a bit racist or sexist in itself, as it reflects the idea that certain races and sexes need a different standard for judgment or ought to be treated with kid’s gloves when it comes to evaluating their performances.
The fanbase of comic book and fantasy movies is often charged with such racism and sexism when casting differs from comic origins in new movies and they do not like a character’s portrayal. Clearly people making these accusations do not appreciate just how petty and demanding said fanbase is towards expectations of consistency and perfection applied to their favorite works. Criticism and nitpicking is to be expected of any performance, regardless of the race or sex of the actors. A brief survey of the reaction to casting in the recent crop of comic book movies suggests a mixed response with no clear trend towards a standard of racist or sexist reception. In fact, if any group is most likely to suffer their critical wrath it seems to be the directors of these films, especially the white males. As for the actors, let’s consider a few examples. Many fans did not like the depiction of the female Captain Marvel character played by Brie Larson, but loved the female character Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson. Fans were generally accepting of Tilda Swinton’s depiction of Ancient One even though the character is, more fittingly, an Asian male in the comics. Similiarly, the character Heimdall, played by Idris Elba, a black man, is literally known in Norse mythology as “the whitest of the Gods,” yet nobody seemed to make a fuss about this casting (Elba being a black male). Perhaps it was because he is not a main character, perhaps it is because Elba does a good job in the role (although the character is largely underwritten), or perhaps it was because nobody purposefully tried to make a controversy out of it.
Anthony Mackie’s portrayal of The Falcon (and the new Captain America) has been well-received. The Falcon is regarded as the first black superhero in American mainstream comics. Should we ever accept this character being recast as a white man? Would the “outrage” machine be thrown in reverse if it happened? In this case, I hope that never happens, although by some people’s standards it seems it would be perfectly acceptable. The “new” Spider-Man character Miles Morales is a black/Puerto Rican teenager and was extremely well received in the 2018 animated masterpiece ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.’ While this character is not the original Spider-Man Peter Parker, it shows that audiences will accept new portrayals of beloved characters played by actors of different races so long as the characters are interesting and it makes sense.
How about straight replacements of iconic characters? Could there be a black Superman? Sure, given he comes from a fictional planet called Krypton and there is no reason Kryptonians cannot have black skin. Would such a casting radically break from the image of Superman everyone has in their minds? Yes, but there isn’t much in the story of the character that would prohibit such a casting. Like the example of Falcon mentioned above however, it may just seem incorrect or unnecessary to ever do so due to the simple fact that the character has been viewed a certain way for so long. There might not be a really great way to articulate it any better than realizing that just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should do it. This is where the oft-repeated line, “if you want more X characters, just create new ones instead of switching up old ones” comes into play. It isn’t as if we need to play the “everyone gets a turn game” with everything and when we try to do so it may seemed forced and artificial, which can distract from the storytelling and break the escapism necessary in so many of these tales.
Let’s recap our criteria. To promote realism and to be consistent with what everyone seems to want applied to their groups/cultures/people of interest, when determining whether to change a character from some original ideal we ought to be mindful of several factors. Is the character based on a real person? If so, it is probably best to represent that person as they were both physically and regarding their personality. Is the character supposed to be part of a specific culture/group in a way that helps define them in the role or is the character/tale part of a cultural tradition? If so, it is probably best to keep that character the way they were meant to be represented. Would changing the character be inconsistent with the time period or setting of the story in a way that destroys the believability of the situation? If so, it is probably best to not recast the character (at least within the original time period or setting. Characters are often updated, as James Bond has been updated for a new era for example). Would changing the character contradict the longstanding representation of the character (how iconic is the character)? The more iconic, the more risky the change, but if it does not contradict the above criteria, a change may be interesting if believable and performed well. In most other instances, it seems fair game for filmmakers to use discretion and cast whomever they wish or whomever seems best for available parts. There is a lot of talent out there and we are a “melting pot” in America after all.
It cannot be stressed enough that all of the above criteria is completely subjective. Anyone is free to make any film or art however they choose casting whoever they choose. But such artists will never be free from criticism of their work and their work has a lasting impact on our culture, which carries with it certain responsibilities. What we should never do is assume the worst in critics just as we shouldn’t assume the worst in the intent of the artists. But so much of this supposed outrage and controversy over characters seems manufactured and unnecessary because the response to the supposed “racist” reaction seems magnitudes greater than any evidence of an actual racist reaction in mainstream thought. When it comes to these castings, in most cases, we all just ought to sit back and try to enjoy the show.