Brock Willard editor in chief
A brand-new trailer for the live action remake of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” released recently and there are many keyboard warriors furious that the actress playing the title character Ariel is black. There are people mad that a fictional mermaid happens to be black. On top of this, the recently premiered “Rings of Power” has garnered backlash from some for casting black actors in the show, citing that Middle Earth, the world the show is set in, shouldn’t have characters that are black. Many even say that the author of the works these two references would be “rolling over in their graves.” The most important question: why does it even matter?
Firstly, the people who are making a fuss about Ariel being played by black actress Halle Bailey usually don’t have a good reason for being upset other than “the original had a white character.” The most cogent response to that should be “Yes, and?” There is nothing saying a filmmaker needs to be 100 percent accurate to a source material. If they were being completely faithful, they would make Ariel drown herself in her human form after being rejected by the prince. That’s what happens in the original story that the 90s Disney film is based on. It’s interesting that they don’t make a fuss about that discrepancy.
Another factor that weakens the critical argument is that the movie takes place in a fictional underwater environment with mythical sea creatures who can breathe underwater and who have access to magic. Apparently, such a world with all that fictional material has no room for a black person. That’s just too unrealistic. The point to be made is when racists know that their beliefs are unpopular (which by in large, they are), they find all sorts of things to mask it so that they maintain their social position in a particular group. This is just another instance of that combined with a false knowledge of literary criticism.
Does the author’s intent even matter? It depends on your own personal beliefs. There are some who say it doesn’t matter at all, even if the author is alive and you can ask them what they mean by a particular passage or writing choice. The logic here is related to the creative process itself. There are some artists who as they create, their original intent with the work of art changes. This obviously muddies the creative waters when examining how an author feels.
There are some who think the author’s intent always matters with no exceptions. This camp firmly believes that an audience’s perception has no bearing on what the work means. The people who dislike black Ariel or black hobbits in “Rings of Power” would most likely associate with this camp. Because Tolkien probably never intended for hobbits to be anything but white-skinned, that aesthetic should be maintained for all adaptations of his works featuring Hobbits.
Regardless of what camp you fall in, you need to realize that there are things to unpack when your primary criticism of a work of art is “I don’t think there should be a black person involved in that.” That statement alone should set off bells and if you are one of those people, it’s okay to deconstruct what you think you know. That is the only way one grows. Consider growing and expanding your view of how art is put together when it’s an adaptation.