Nearly two decades after he helped bring back the movie musical with Best Picture Oscar winner “Chicago,” director Rob Marshall has made Hollywood history again. By casting 19-year-old singer Halle Bailey as Ariel in his upcoming remake of the 1989 animated film “The Little Mermaid,” he’s about to give the big-screen its first black live-action Disney princess.
What took Hollywood’s casting agents so long to appreciate what’s always been right in front of them? We’ve seen one animated black Disney princess before, but Tiana in 2009’s “The Princess and the Frog” came only after other princesses of color — Chinese Mulan, Native American Pocahontas, and “Aladdin” Arabic heroine Jasmine — made their debuts. (Moana, the daughter of a Polynesian chief, followed in 2016.)
Although black women have been a vital part of the American fabric since the first Independence Day, they continue to be far too under-represented and misrepresented on screen. For years, they were relegated to thankless maid and mammy roles, like the one that made “Gone With the Wind” actress Hattie McDaniel the first black woman to win an Oscar (for Best Supporting Actress) in 1940.
Over the next few decades, black actresses graduated to playing mothers mostly hovering in the background (Ethel Waters in “Pinky,” Juanita Moore in “Imitation of Life” and Beah Richards in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” — all Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominees). When Hollywood finally delivered a juicy leading role for a black woman, a light-skinned one who was passing for white in 1949’s “Pinky,” the part and the subsequent Best Actress Oscar nomination went to Jeanne Crain, who was white.
Even though the movie world recently has seen Emma Stone playing an Asian woman in “Aloha,” Scarlett Johansson playing a character based on Japanese manga in “Ghost in the Shell” and Dominican and Puerto Rican actress Zoë Saldana playing the legendary dark-skinned black singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone, such egregiously tone-deaf casting probably wouldn’t fly today. But that doesn’t mean black women have overcome in Hollywood. Not yet.
Only one has ever won a Best Actress Oscar. And before Halle Berry’s long-time-coming triumph for “Monster’s Ball” in 2002, only five black actresses in nearly 75 years had made it into the category: Dorothy Dandridge for 1954’s “Carmen Jones,” Diana Ross for 1972’s “Lady Sings the Blues,” Cicely Tyson for 1972’s “Sounder,” Diahann Carroll for 1974’s “Claudine” and Whoopi Goldberg for 1985’s “The Color Purple.” The Academy has added four more since Berry, but we’re still waiting for a sequel to her landmark win.
On the TV side, no black woman has won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series since “The Jeffersons” star Isabel Sanford became the first to do so in 1981, and it wasn’t until 2015 that a black actress, “How to Get Away with Murder” star Viola Davis, took home the gong for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. The message is clear: If you’re black and female, stay in your lane, Best Supporting Actress. (Six black actresses have triumphed in that Oscar category this century.)
Think about it. We’ve seen Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Will Smith, Samuel L. Jackson and Jamie Foxx all climb to the top rungs of the Hollywood ladder, but movies have yet to launch a commensurate black female box office star. “Black Panther” aside, black actresses have been largely left out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If it weren’t for black directors like Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther”) and Jordan Peele (“Us”), they’d barely have a presence at all in franchise and event movies.
Perhaps with the arrival of a black Ariel, a new day soon will be dawning, one in which the classics, including the plays of Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams or even “Little Women,” can be re-imagined with black characters (with better big-screen results than the 1978 “Wizard of Oz” reboot “The Wiz”). That would finally give black actresses a shot at the sort of Oscar-baity roles white actresses have come to take for granted.
It’s harder to imagine it working in the opposite direction, since August Wilson’s plays and works like Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” and James Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner” are as inextricably linked to the black American experience as “Fiddler on the Roof” is to Jewish life. But in a way, that underscores how blacks get many of their most prominent roles because only blacks can play them.
The inflexibility of nonfiction history prevents black actors from being cast as Abraham Lincoln or John Wilkes Booth or Mary Todd Lincoln — unless they’re bursting into song in a stage musical like “Hamilton,” where our belief is already suspended from the moment we enter the theater and a rethinking of the founding fathers is intentionally front and center. But when race isn’t a plot point, literary history easily can be rewritten. In the fictional realm, Snow White probably should be played by a white actress, for obvious reasons, but an actress of any race can be Cinderella (a Disney Princess played by another black singer, Brandy, in the 1997 live-action TV remake), or Sleeping Beauty, or Belle in “Beauty and the Beast,” or Ariel.
Diversity via non-race-specific casting can be a beautiful thing, and it can lead to powerful performances. One recent example is the Amazon Prime series “Homecoming.” Stephan James (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) landed the lead role of Walter Cruz, although the character with a Spanish surname wasn’t written for a black actor. James does such an excellent job navigating Cruz’s inner struggle, and his chemistry with Julia Roberts is so palpable, it’s hard to think of a white actor who would have done the role such justice.
Maybe someday we’ll get a young up-and-coming black actress playing the lead opposite Brad Pitt or George Clooney. Perhaps we’ll see more headlining romantic comedies. There’s no rule that says America’s sweetheart has to be white. A black woman could play that role just as convincingly as Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Reese Witherspoon or Jennifer Aniston once did.
When the subject is romance, race should be secondary anyway. Black people fall in love as beautifully as whites do, but when they do so on screen, it’s generally in the context of a movie about race or surrounded by an all-black cast.
Those who gripe about the “blackwashing” of white, redhead cartoon Ariel are missing the point entirely. Mermaids may be fantasy, but if a British prince can marry a biracial American divorcee and maybe live happily ever after, there’s no reason why a black mermaid can’t have her own dreams come true.