It has been what Beyoncé would call a ‘Summer Renaissance’ for Black Media! With The Little Mermaid, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, They Cloned Tyrone, and more, we are seeing what I believe to be a Renaissance of Black art on the big screen. As usual, that Renaissance is being misinterpreted by an audience that the art was not created for. *cough* white people *cough*. This is to be expected. So since they feel so comfortable sharing their opinions, I thought I’d share mine. Black recasts are, to put it simply, outdoing their original white counterparts. They do this easily because they understand the assignment in a way their white counterparts never could. Additionally, contrary to white opinion, these recasts are powerful and are creating a space for original Black sci-fi/fantasy to thrive in a way we have not seen before. Let me tell you why
Miles Morales the Average Kid from Brooklyn
Five years ago, I went to see Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Spiderman is my favorite superhero. He was always the most down-to-earth and relatable superhero to me so I knew I’d probably like the movie no matter what. I had no idea how Into the Spider-Verse would absolutely blow me away. I didn’t expect the music, the animation, or the jokes, but above all, I did not expect the heart. When Miles took his leap of faith as “What’s Up Danger” played in the background, I realized what this film would mean to young Black kids. Especially Black boys who are so often discouraged from taking any leap of faith. I saw the love that was poured into this incredibly Black movie about an Afro-Latino kid from Brooklyn who just happened to be bitten by a radioactive spider, and I cried.
I definitely didn’t mean to cry, that was a little embarrassing. But that same year Black Panther came out, and I’d never seen us in these kinds of stories in movies this big. We never had this before. We didn’t even really know what we were missing until we saw it. I didn’t really know how else to react. And then it happened. After the movie, one of the people I went to see the movie with complained about it (and yes, yes he was). He complained about how it didn’t make sense that “anyone could wear the mask” and how if anyone could be Spider-Man then why would it matter. And that’s when I realized something else, they just don’t get it. They don’t even get the movies they’re watching. White people don’t even get the stories they are trolling us about online, they don’t get the heart of the movies they feel entitled to.
It shouldn’t have to be explained that Spider-Man is supposed to be the everyday average New York kid. If you’ve ever been to New York, the everyday average New York kid 100% is a kind-hearted, artistic, nerdy Afro-Latino kid from Brooklyn. When you think about it, it’s actually kind of nuts that Spider-Man was not always a kid of color. And the heart of Spider-Man is supposed to be that it could have been anyone. Anyone can wear the mask if they decide to be brave enough. But you know, I wouldn’t expect white people to get that with their response to another recast they’ve been bitc-complaining about…The Little Mermaid.
Halle Bailey as the Heart of The Little Mermaid
When Halle Bailey was cast as Ariel, there was uproar for years with white people even coining the word “gingercide. This is a word I refuse to define because it is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life, but I digress. I found all the backlash to Bailey as Ariel to be ridiculous, predictable, and racist. It was especially ridiculous once the film came out as there has quite literally never been anyone more fit for the role of Ariel than a Black woman.
You see, when the movie came out people claimed it had gone “woke” for merely updating a few details to make it make sense in 2023. While some claimed it to be too woke, others claimed it was not woke enough and was giving young girls the wrong impression. This is so absurd because The Little Mermaid (1979) is a feminist piece of media, and I can’t believe the same white women saying we were erasing their culture so clearly misunderstood the entire point of the film.
Now, this is going to really expose me as a Disney nerd, but that’s alright. The Little Mermaid, while dated, was a turning point for animation, Disney princesses, Disney at large, and women’s stories in general. Ariel is the separation between the classical Disney princesses (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella) and the Disney Renaissance princesses (Ariel, Jasmine, Belle, Mulan, and Pocahontas). When you think of the first three princesses you think incredibly white, damsel in distress, falls in love with the first man they see (not exaggerating), and with very few lines in their own movie. When you think of the later group of princesses, you have a group of women that, while they may have love interests, have their own personalities, opinions, and dreams.
Ariel was the start of that. Ariel’s story resonated with so many young girls of color, because she talks about not only wanting to be somewhere or someone different but to be something different. She wants to have an entirely different existence. With music being so crucial to this film and at large saving Disney animation as rent was due, we can’t ignore the music in this film.
“Part of Your World” is the first time we truly hear Ariel’s iconic voice, and she’s not talking about love or a man. She’s begging, pleading for any way out of her current existence. It doesn’t make sense, it’s not possible, and everyone around her tells her she’s foolish and naïve, but she knows better. She knows herself more than anyone else, and she knows what she wants. Sure, she focuses on Eric once she’s on land, but that want…no, that need to be human was already there. Eric simply ignited that want that was already there. Her story is so full of longing and need that Black women, queer people, and marginalized folk at large can easily relate to it. But of course, white women wouldn’t get that.
White women have a tendency to, no offense, relate their entire existence to men. White women, especially cishet white women, that have no sense of identity outside of their gender and their relationship to the men around them were never going to get that longing as being internal and not related to a romantic interest. This is why the story becomes deeper in the 2023 version with a Black woman as Ariel. The 2023 version highlights what was already there (but clearly missed by some) in the original. If you’ve watched The Little Mermaid Cinematic Universe (LMCU) you know that in the prequel Ariel’s mom’s death rocked her family so much that King Triton banned music at large from the kingdom. You also know that in the sequel Ariel eventually becomes a mother herself being the only Disney princess to do so. Both the prequel and sequel address Ariel’s trauma of losing her mom, Ursula’s relation to the family, and Ariel’s complicated relationship with her father.
This is highlighted in the 2023 version. Ariel is just a girl trying to make sense of her world with an overbearing father, sisters who just don’t get it, and an entire kingdom of pressure. With a Black woman at the helm, this becomes more obvious by Bailey’s performance which clearly inspired everyone involved in the film to dig deeper. Because I’m going to be very honest, this live-action could have been very mediocre. Disney’s best live actions often focus on the retelling of their villains’ stories. So to retell a story about a princess we already knew was a bold choice, but Bailey was the answer. On-screen, this inspired A Caribbean Kingdom, a love interest who isn’t one-dimensional, and an Ariel who can fight her own battles. Behind the scenes, this inspired an entire underwater musical, half in water half CGI, some of the most chilling vocals I’ve ever heard, and incredible acting from the whole cast. That is what you get when you cast a Black woman who understands the assignment. And it’s so obvious when you look at other Black recasts leading up to The Little Mermaid.
We’ve Always Understood the Assignment
I focused on Miles Morales and Ariel because they are extremely relevant this summer. But they are not the only iconic Black recasts in the media. To name a few of my favorites, MJ from Spider-Man: Homecoming, Louis from Interview with the Vampire, Finn from Star Wars (technically not a recast), Ann from Percy Jackson, Ryan Wilder from Batwoman, Starfire from Teen Titans, The 15th Doctor from Doctor Who, and most importantly Iris West from The Flash.
Without Candice Patton taking on the role of Iris West in The Flash, a majority of these other recasts would cease to exist. Patton endured a lot of hate that was completely unnecessary for a role that she transformed. Although she was human (mostly…), Patton was magical as Iris West. She was the perfect girl next door, and she was Black. And although that shouldn’t be a magical role for Black women…it kind of is.
(White) People are used to Black people existing in certain stories playing certain roles. They are used to seeing us as athletes, entertainers, gang members, and at large what they love to see us as is slaves. Slave movies do remarkably well with white audiences. It’s almost humorous how they only allow us to exist in our trauma, the trauma that they subjected us to. When you think about it, it’s insane that these are the stories we are allowed to win awards and get funding for. But the last time you saw a Black rom-com not based on trauma was when? Right.
It’s not that stories unpacking our trauma that bring attention to our history and hopefully healing to us aren’t important. It’s that we shouldn’t have to only exist in one kind of story. We also shouldn’t have to be in stories that are solely about our race. We are Black…but Blackness is about so much more than just race and racial trauma. Blackness is about joy, community, creativity, and a shared history. Blackness is an entire universe…and they don’t even know because they only allow us to be one thing: victims.
But we are so much more than just victims of racism. We are the girl next door, mermaids, heroes, Jedis, vampires, and whatever the fuck else we want to be. By taking these roles originally imagined for white people and making them our own, we create and show what we can be, not just who we have been. And these recasts don’t just help us (though that would be enough of a reason), they help everyone around us. They help us get a Latina Snow White, a lesbian She-Ra, and hopefully a South Asian Rapunzel. When Black people win, everyone wins. That’s powerful, that’s Afro-futurism in action, and that’s why they don’t want us to do it.
Afro-futurism in Action
Afro-futurism is defined as “a cultural aesthetic that combines science-fiction, history, and fantasy to explore the African-American experience and aims to connect those from the Black diaspora with their forgotten African ancestry”. To me, these Black recasts are an incredible example of Afro-futurism. But they are only the start. The original content we are getting from Black Creatives right now is the continuation. Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, Entergalactic, and They Cloned Tyrone are a few that come to mind for me. Whether it be the animation style, the story, worldbuilding, or the ideas, these stories are original Black work that creates an image of us that we don’t just recognize but aspire to.
I believe Black recasts are a necessary part of this work being created. People tend to put Black people into a box, to make us monoliths, and reduce us to one thing. These recasts force creators to imagine outside the box of what even Black people thought was possible. When we force people to relate to Black people as we have had to with white characters on screen, we make them see us in our entirety. But I’m going to be honest, I don’t really care about whether non-Black people see us or not. I care that we see ourselves.
It’s very important to me that Black kids have a Black Ariel to look up to now. With Afro-futurism being about the connection between Black people and our forgotten African ancestry, it is no coincidence that Halle Bailey read The Deep by Rivers Solomon to prepare for the role of Ariel. The Deep is about an underwater society built by the water-breathing descendants of pregnant slaves thrown overboard from slave ships. Black people have had a complicated relationship with water since we were forcibly brought to The Americas. From acid being thrown into pools to keep us from swimming to Black women being pushed into pools to embarrass us to water insecurity across the Black diaspora, and more…we have a lot of trauma around water.
Having a Black mermaid is very healing for us as a community and connects us to our roots in Africa. Water is very powerful and can indeed take life away, but it also gives life as represented by so many different deities such as Oshun and Yemoja who are Yoruba deities. Oshun represents water, purity, fertility, love, and sensuality, and Yemoja the goddess of creation depicted as a mermaid represents water, the moon, motherhood, and protection. Having a Black mermaid, even if it’s just fantasy, shows us that we can overcome our trauma in real life too no matter how deep it goes.
Growing up, Ariel was one of my favorite princesses. I stopped eating fish (as fish were friends, not food), learned to swim, and learned to stand up for myself because of her, and she wasn’t even Black back then. No Disney princess was. So to see little Black kids see themselves in Miles Morales and Ariel and to start them off by telling them they can be whoever they want to be is important. To remind or even teach those of us who didn’t have that growing up that we can be more is just as if not more important. We are creating the worlds we want to exist in on-screen and manifesting that those worlds and their ideas transform this one. And they can be as mad about it as they want to be. But the damage is already done, we are already seeing ourselves it’s too late. And we’re doing it better. We are seeing ourselves fly in the places they only crawled. And to me, that’s magical.
Sydney Turner is a Black queer film and culture writer from Chicago. She likes to write about her perspective on media and the world at large. She is currently an associate editor at Off Colour and plans to bring her perspective to a writers’ room someday. At large, she wants to use her voice and her talents to uplift people like and different from her in whatever way possible.