The Racist Backlash to Halle Bailey’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ Is Out of Control

Photo courtesy of Disney.
Photo courtesy of Disney.
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Over the weekend, Disney released the first teaser for its upcoming, live-action take on The Little Mermaid. The brief clip is relatively light on actual footage, but it does give us the goods: star Halle Bailey as Ariel, singing a bit of the iconic ballad “Part of Your World.”

Bailey looks and sounds great, as she puts a little vocal trill on the second-to-last verse and rocks that familiar red mane. Sure, there’s not much else going on here—just the camera tracking underwater, following Ariel as she swims through the caves and growth populating the kingdom of Atlantica. But it’s a perfectly sufficient glimpse at director Rob Marshall’s adaptation of the classic.

Perfectly sufficient, that is, if you are not a so-called Disney stan already primed to hate this movie. It’s one thing to be down on The Little Mermaid because of Disney’s track record with live-action remakes. (Bad. They’re bad.) But since Disney announced that Bailey was playing Ariel in 2019, there has been no shortage of backlash.

Much of it is tinged with racism, of course. Halle Bailey is Black; Ariel, a fictional, animated character, appears to be white in the 1989 animated film. Despite the utter irrelevance of Ariel’s skin color—she’s a dang mermaid, people!—and Bailey’s abundant talent, casting a young Black woman in the lead role was clearly unacceptable. How dare Disney not pay slavish reverence to the original film by casting a carbon copy of the cartoon princess? It’s an ignorant question meant to mask the prejudice truly at play here. But then, that’s how the internet works, no?

If these natural-born critics aren’t calling out Bailey for “not looking the part,” they’re finding another minor problem with the new Little Mermaid. This time, post-teaser release, the perceived issue is even more nonsensical: The underwater footage doesn’t look underwater-y enough.

To be fair, the internet is full of people who are praising Bailey while also slamming how the film’s underwater visuals look. Some of these critiques are totally valid; this scene is definitely, 100-percent dark-looking! It would be nice to see Bailey in some brighter lighting, to be sure.

But to expect the film to look brightly colored blue like Aquaman or Avatar or what have you is, if not unreasonable, undue pressure. First, it’s hard to call the 90 seconds of footage we’ve seen of The Little Mermaid thus far representative. Also, from what I’m told—I don’t swim and am deeply afraid of being in the water—it’s extremely dark underwater, anywho. And the original cartoon had its fair share of poorly lit underwater locales.

But those primary colors defining some memorable animated moments aren’t to be repeated here no matter what; that is not the live-action Disney movie way. This is a movie gunning for realism, like it or not.

There are valid reasons to be skeptical of the new Little Mermaid. Live-action re-dos of cartoons are hardly ever good! The one thing this movie definitely has going for it, though, is its casting, which gives Black girls an Ariel they can see themselves in. That every criticism thus far has been directly tied or closely connected to the disdain of Bailey’s casting makes it more and more frustrating to take those criticisms at face value—especially when it’s people getting up in arms over how the water in this short clip looks.

The Little Mermaid hits theaters May 26, 2023. Lord knows we’ve got a long, exhausting press cycle of un-nuanced, kneejerk opinions ahead.

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