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Black parents on the impact of on-screen representation in 'The Little Mermaid'
Amna Nawaz: This week, a live-action version of Disney's "The Little Mermaid" opens in theaters, more than 30 years after the original animated movie hit the big screen.
It's one of just a few times that a Disney princess will be played by a Black actress, in a casting decision that sparked both joy and backlash.
We explored what this moment means as part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Amna Nawaz: A new "Little Mermaid" is now part of our world, with a fresh take on the old-school Disney classic, a live-action remake starring 23-year-old Halle Bailey, a Black singer and actress, in the lead role of Ariel.
The summer movie trailer release led to viral delightful reactions among young fans.
Woman: I think she's brown. Brown Ariel.
Woman: That's the real her?
Amna Nawaz: Including sisters Rylie and Mckenzie Fleming. Their mother, Dari, filmed the moment they saw the princess.
Amna Nawaz: Were you surprised by the way they reacted?
Dari Fleming, Mother: I was. I was super surprised, especially with my little one, because she never really gets surprised or reacts to anything. So for her to react that way to the "Little Mermaid" trailer, I was like, wow, this is going to be an amazing movie.
Amna Nawaz: Even Bailey herself said she was in awe of the response to the trailer alone.
Anika Noni Rose, Actress: I suppose you want a kiss?
Amna Nawaz: There's only ever been one Black Disney princess in Disney's 100-year history, 2009's Tiana in "The Princess and the Frog." A previous 1997 Cinderella remake cast singer and actress Brandy Norwood in the lead.
For Dari, that moment resonated. She wants more moments like that for her girls.
When you think about the kind of characters that you watched growing up, right, the TV shows, the movies that you had, how are they different from the things that your girls get to see today?
Dari Fleming: When I was growing up, I had Cinderella, Brandy. I absolutely loved that movie. And for them to remake another Black Disney princess/mermaid is just -- it's just amazing. And I feel like that's so important for, not just for brown and black, but little girls in general.
Amna Nawaz: After their reaction video went viral, the Flemings were invited to attend the movie's world premiere in Los Angeles earlier this month.
And Rylie and McKenzie came face to face with the real-life Ariel.
What's your favorite thing about Ariel?
Will Fleming, Father: What do you like so much mermaids?
Rylie Fleming and Mckenzie Fleming, Daughters: Everything! Everything!
Amna Nawaz: Their father, Will, says it's less about the movie, and about the message it sends.
Will Fleming: It's one thing for us to be able to say, hey, you can be whatever you want to be. If you're not seeing folks that look like you, that maybe come from the same backgrounds as you, it's not as believable for someone who's never seen it before.
Amna Nawaz: But not everyone welcomed the new Ariel. The 2019 casting announcement of Bailey sparked the hashtags #notmyariel and #notmymermaid, some arguing "The Little Mermaid" is a -- quote -- "European fairy tale" and that Bailey -- quote -- "looks nothing like the Ariel we know and love."
That anger isn't new. There was similar backlash with Amandla Stenberg, a Black actress, joining the "Hunger Games" cast in 2012, to Leah Sava Jeffries, also a Black actress, being cast in a Percy Jackson TV series in 2022, and that same year to Puerto Rican actor Ismael Cruz Cordova being cast in "The Lord of the Rings" prequel.
Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, University of Michigan: I believe that each generation of children has been carefully taught who to expect in the stories that they read.
Amna Nawaz: Professor Ebony Elizabeth Thomas of the University of Michigan is the author of "The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games."
She says the negative response isn't surprising, given the history of stories being told and characters being represented.
Ebony Elizabeth Thomas: If all of a sudden your favorite dish has a new ingredient or a new preparation, then you are going to be absolutely startled. So this is not giving excuses for racism and responses to diverse and multicultural stories. Quite the contrary.
I just want to explain within the context of a society where we all grow up to expect most of our heroes and most of our heroines to be white, cisgender, and from the majority culture.
Amna Nawaz: Multicultural stories, Thomas argues, have the power to open doors, build bridges, and ultimately connect people to each other.
Ebony Elizabeth Thomas: It helps us learn how to get along with each other when we have a glimpse into what it means to be another person living in a different kind of culture, living in another country, living another life.
Melissa McCarthy, Actress: So here's the deal.
Amna Nawaz: The new film takes viewers into another world, featuring notable names like Melissa McCarthy as the sea witch Ursula.
Awkwafina, Actress: Oh, hey, didn't expect to find you here.
Amna Nawaz: Actress Awkwafina as the seagull Scuttle, and Daveed Diggs as the anxious, but ever loyal crab Sebastian.
Early fan reviews are enthusiastic.
Do you remember your favorite song from the movie?
Mckenzie Fleming: "Under the Sea."
Amna Nawaz: "Under the Sea"? I love that one too.
Rylie, what about you? What's your favorite song?
Dari Fleming: What's your favorite mermaid song?
Will Fleming: What's your favorite song?
Rylie Fleming: (SINGING)
Amna Nawaz: "Part of Your World?"
"The Little Mermaid" opens in theaters nationwide this Friday.
See, one of my favorite songs to you. Yours too, I bet, right?
Geoff Bennett: Sure.