Black Ariel

By Grace Hays

Recently my mom and I were watching You Tube, and a trailer popped up. The trailer was about the new Little Mermaid, which was originally released in 1989. My mom and I were super excited about it, especially since Ariel is getting played by a black woman. My mom kept talking for days about it. But then I started seeing these videos that the choice to cast Ariel as a black mermaid was controversial. Turns out many people are upset with black Ariel, because she isn’t the real original one. And now I’m here to have a conversation with the person who loves Ariel and also is black, my mom. 

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Grace Hays: When you watched the little mermaid, what did you like about Ariel? 

Vonya Hays: It’s one of my favorite childhood movie sets. I like how she came from a big family and her family was different than all the other families. I liked the color of her hair. The songs I liked you trying to figure things out on her own. I like that Ursula the villain was a character jealous of her and she looked out of the ordinary of Disney typical characters. I like all the characters because they were all quirky. And some way is, like, the first time Disney made something that wasn’t like, so cookie cutter. And I felt that, that’s the kind of family that I came from. 

GH: What made Ariel so different from other movies? 

VH: Her temperament wasn’t like the only child. She wanted something. She saw help first before she figured it out on her own and went out on her own and traded with Ursula. She just wanted to have her own space and her own identity. I didn’t understand that then but now I do.

GH: Have you seen the live-action remake trailer? 

VH: Yes. So I’m very excited about that. I’m excited about everything that I saw about the texture. The tone, the vibe, the character Haley, her hair, the colors, her voice. Yeah, I’m excited about everything. 

GH: You know, I’ve heard that people are upset because the colors aren’t vibrant in the trailer. How do you feel about that? 

VH: You have to understand cinematography and lighting. You can’t light every nationality, every culture in the same way and because her skin is pigmented, muted lighting makes her facial features shine more. So it was brilliant. Went on their behalf to mute the colors but again you got to kind of be a movie fan to understand the color, to get why that was done.

 GH: A Lot of people are upset that they’ve changed Ariel’s race, that they black to wash her. How do you feel about that? 

VH: Well, you have to understand that race is a social construct. It’s placing people in categories by color and in America, the world colonization has made it so that people of color are dehumanized. So when the world sees something they’re used to, become something different, they’re upset about it and I get it, but they also have to have that education, that knowledge that there are more people in the world than there are that look like you. So, if you’re used to everything being catered to you as a culture, then I understand why they’re upset, but they also have to know their time is over. 

GH: Do you think Disney made Arial black for publicity? 

VH: I think that had a little bit to do with it. I think it’s a part of the world waking up and understanding, you know, that racism is wrong. And then I also want to believe that Haley’s voice and her talent and her personality made her the best character or the best actress for that job. Typically Disney wouldn’t have picked a girl that looked like her and, I mean, I still hold the Cinderella that had Brandy and Whitney Houston dear to my heart because they were girls that look like me on TV or women on TV that look like me. So I’m super excited that Disney did choose to go in this direction. But I also understand that with the whole movement of capitalizing on Black Culture, it’s a way to feed Disney’s pockets. 

GH: How do you think black Ariel will impact the new generation? 

VH: I think it depends on the family. I think it depends on the culture. And for someone who looks like me, who looks like us, it’s going to be a beautiful thing. For them to see someone that looks like them. By having that confidence and representation, you’re going to have a lot of more people interested in things they may not have been exposed to. You might have more marine biologists, you might have more of anything and everything. It’s a beautiful thing. But if you’re used to Ariel looking a certain way — say, you’re of a European descent, you expect Ariel to be white. Well, I mean, it’s because for the last 400 years, everything has been catered to that narrative, but it’s different now, and it’s still beautiful. I think if you’re taught to see people as people and humans as humans, it’s still a beautiful thing. It just means something different to each person. Each family, each culture.

GH: Have you seen the new cast for Ariel?

VH: I have and I kind of remember a little bit of the actresses and actors. Play the different parts. 

GH: Do you believe Disney will pick a good cast for the new Ariel? 

VH: Oh, it depends on your definition of good and it depends on who’s on that committee picking the characters, the actors that will play the characters, it’s more two-person, auditioning. How did they find out about the audition? And I mean, like, it’s that social network behind it sometimes. You’ll see the best person for that role and then you’ll see like they had to have paid somebody or they just don’t fit so we’ll see. Like I can think of Ursula being played by Melissa McCarthy. I Think that’s a good fit because she’s kind of a comedian that kind of pokes fun at reality. So some people would call her mean but I think that’s like the perfect kind of balance for Ursula because Ursula is me. She’s jealous. So like if they stuck to doing things like that to pick the Cavs, I think it’s gonna be a great movie. 

GH: Do you think they could have picked a better actor than Halle Bailey? How do you believe Halle will act? 

VH: Well, I follow her as an actress so I enjoy her work on Grownish, and her performing as an artist with her sister. I don’t know if I would say my expectation wasn’t that it should be someone other than her or better than her just that the person that does the role does their best and does it justice.

GH: How do you think the new Ariel will compare to Old Ariel? 

VH: I think it’s gonna create it’s own lane, and I think it’s going to be just as powerful as it was before. It’s not just a cartoon. 

GH: Do you think this will open the lanes to Black mermaids? 

VH: There’s always been black mermaids. They just have not been monetized or mainstream so do you believe they will now be or more likely to be mainstream. Yes, I think that’s the whole problem with this kind of race. As a social frame creates for us, it makes you think there’s as many different narratives as there are many different voices to cater to, so I’m excited.

GH: Do you think that Disney can’t make an original story about a black person? 

VH: I believe they can, it’s just again the behind-the-scenes thing: who’s on the board of directors? Who’s hiring people who retain their people of color? What are they doing behind the scenes? There’s more than enough opportunity and writers and producers but are they being hired? Are they even an option? All those things come into play because they might be comfortable with not picking as many people, like, I don’t even know employment wise, how many employees of color does Disney have, if they have a million employees, how many of those are people of color?

GH: Do you believe that Disney is making the same old reboot? 

VH: Yeah, I think they’re capable of so much more, but it’s kind of like they picked their lane and they rode it. Why do you think corporations like Disney stick to a lane? Because of profit. How much money they’ve made. They have to report back to shareholders and there’s only like a few different investment groups that are funded from rich people’s money investing in it because there’s a family with the last name Disney, but they don’t necessarily own the majority of shares. So it’s kind of like what’s going to make us money? That’s what they’re going to produce now.

GH: What do you believe made it so many people love Ariel to the point that they’re fighting about her race?

VH: I think that has nothing to do with their love for princesses. It has everything to do with how they grew up, and if they grew up understanding that black people weren’t human. If they grew up with that understanding of racism, that’s why they’re mad, but they may not be able to articulate that. That is the social frame that they grew up in.

GH: How do you think the old Ariel impacted generations?

VH: Like it kind of depends on how they grew up and what they understood. Ariel is kind of like a Coming of Age story, so that’s how I identify with it. I believe it will continue to represent that and but again, the secondary part 2 that is because I’m already confident in me being me. It matters. But then again, at 41, it doesn’t matter to me. What do you think it doesn’t matter to you up 41? Well, because I’m comfortable with it. Who am I? I know that. My race isn’t who I am. It’s what I look like. It’s not my interest. It’s not. It defines what other people see me as but it doesn’t define who I am. It’s a part of me. I’m African-American, I’m afro-caribbean, I get all of that, but my skin color is a part of me, but not the only part of me. 

GH: What do you think? Maybe people love Disney so much. Why do you do it? Why do you think Disney’s formula worked so well and what do you think people wanted to? 

VH: It’s fantasy. So you’re marketing to a fantasy. It doesn’t matter what your background is, they are marketing to you. This is what life could be. This is a dream. Like I think their whole slogan is “dreams come true” or something like that.

GH: So do you think Disney is brainwashing young children to think a certain way

VH: I wouldn’t say they’re the only ones responsible. It just goes back to there being a dominant narrative and that dominant narrative is to be something you’re not. Are they making it so that little girls think they’re only supposed to be princesses? When I was a kid, I didn’t. I didn’t want to be a princess, but I like them. I just didn’t want to be one. I wouldn’t say they’re only responsible but they are accountable and following along and not trying to redefine those roles. 

GH: So Disney a lot of money, like so much money. They probably don’t need any more money, but why do you think they still want so much more money? 

VH: Well, money is power and influence. Why do you think they want so much power and influence? It depends. That can be a personal answer and then it could be answered from a group perspective. Personally, everyone wants to be comfortable from a group perspective. Money hangs around money. So Disney is interested in profit because profit is how it runs in the sense that they try to make movies and have merchandise and give you experiences through their parks to generate income and keep you coming back. Because they just want to keep making money.