African American actress and singer Halle Bailey cast as Ariel in Disney’s new “Little Mermaid”

African American actress/singer Halle Bailey has been cast as Ariel in Disney’s up and coming live action retelling of its classic Little Mermaid

The announcement was made with director Rob Marshall (Mary Poppins, Mary Poppins Returns) stating, “After an extensive search, it was abundantly clear that Halle possesses that rare combination of spirit, heart, youth, innocence, and substance—plus a glorious singing voice—all intrinsic qualities necessary to play this iconic role”. 19 year old Bailey, as part of the singing duo Chloe x Halle, is known for her singing and had also been nominated for a Grammy this year, along with her sister Chloe Bailey. After stumbling upon their cover of one of her songs, Beyonce has also taken the duo on tour with her where they opened for her during the European leg of her Formation World Tour in 2016. 

She is also part of the main cast of Grown-ish, a spin-off series of Kenya Barris’s ABC sitcom Black-ish, which is available on Freeform. This is also not the first time that Bailey will be working with Disney. The duo’s track Warrior from their debut album The Kids Are Alright has been featured in A Wrinkle Through Time (and on Grown-ish) and Bailey has also appeared on the Disney Channel series Austin and Ally. In response to the announcement, Bailey tweeted out, “Dream come true…”, using the official Chloe x Halle Twitter account, and has since been responding to well wishers that include her namesake Halle Berry.

Along with being directed by Marshall, the movie will be produced by him, John DeLuca, Marc Platt, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. The new iteration will include some songs from the original animated film that were written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. The 1989 Disney classic won the Best Original Song and Score Oscars for its soundtrack. New songs that will be included have been co-created by Miranda, who has perviously done so for Disney’s Moana, and Menken. David Magee has been credited with writing the script with Jane Goldman having written a previous draft. 

With the announcement being made yesterday, while a lot of people have shown support for the actress, there are still some who are criticising Disney’s decision to have an African American woman play the fictional character that has been animated as a Caucasian woman. The negative response has also resulted in a hashtag, #notmyariel, which is being used not just by critics, but also by people who support the decision, to discuss how the race of a fictional mermaid may not really be a very important topic in identity politics. Caucasian American actress Jodi Benson has typically been the voice behind the three movies and one tv show that star the Atlantean princess. 

According to the Hollywood Diversity Report 2019 by UCLA, only two in ten lead actors in movies are people of colour, with only nine percent of actors cast in Hollywood are African American. For minority actresses, the numbers are even lower, with a ratio of three to one for African American men and women. 

The decision to have Bailey play Ariel has also reminded people of when Disney had also previously cast African American actress Brandy Norwood in a 1997 live action re-telling of Cinderella. In recent years, media companies have begun casting people of colour for iconic, typically depicted as Caucasian, characters. Nick Fury from the Marvel movie franchise is a Caucasian man in the original comic book series and is portrayed by African American actor Samuel L Jackson. Senegalese-American actress Anna Diop also plays the DC fictional Tamaranean alien princess Starfire in Titans. Noma Dumezweni was the older Hermione Granger in J K Rowling’s play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.  Some of these decisions, such as the case of Diop and Dumezweni, have been received in a less than favourably way by some consumers of the franchise. However, their reactions have died down over time. 

Disney had perviously been criticised for apparently lightening the skin tone of Princess Tiana in Wreck It Ralph 2 which ended in them re-animating parts of the movie. And with fans now pushing to have Prince Eric also being portrayed by a minority actor and Awkwafina already in talks for voicing Scuttle, perhaps Disney’s new Little Mermaid will be more diverse. 

Production is expected to being sometime in early 2020, with additional announcements about the cast being made in the coming weeks. Along with Awkwafina, Room’s actor Jacob Trembley and actress Melissa McCarthy are also reportedly in talks for Flounder and Ursula. 

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