Black Characters Should Be Able to Exist in Fantasy
From an underwater world to Middle Earth to Galaxies far away, the notion that Black people shouldn’t exist in fictional places works against the logic of fantasy.
Reactions towards the first look of The Little Mermaid live fell into two sharp extremes: those who were ecstatic and those who weren’t. The latter is swimming in racist sentiments over the Blackwashing of Ariel, a mermaid depicted as white in Disney’s 1989 classic animation. Regarded as one of Disney’s iconic princesses, the live-action remake finds its Ariel in Halle Bailey, who has to survive the storm of racist backlash for a second time.
The first backlash came in 2019, when she landed the lead role and hell froze over. Accusations that Disney was trying to score cheap diversity points by changing the race of Ariel was common. An attempt to ruin many childhoods, so went the fearmongering. A Black mermaid? It was simply unfathomable.
Released at Disney’s D23 Expo, the teaser finds Halle under the sea as she forlornly sings “Part of Your World.” Even though the lighting is dim, it’s obvious that she keeps her natural locks, turned red in honor of the original Ariel, but upgraded stylistically to look fresh. While people have been nitpicking other technical aspects, like color grading and how dull Halle looks — whether in good faith or not — the footage has received over a million dislikes on YouTube.
In the midst of racist hashtags, reactionary whitewashing attempts, and Disney purists rejecting the trailer and the film altogether, what appears to be lost in the discourse is that Halle was cast as Ariel because she was better than other contenders. One half of R&B duo Chloe x Halle, Halle is a talented singer whose ethereal vocals is perfect for the role. Director of the remake Rob Marshall has praised her performance as Ariel, saying he cried after her audition. “It was like watching a great actor being born.” he said.
But Marshall’s comments haven’t done much to sway racist opinions. Written by Danish author Han Christian Andersen in 1836, The Little Mermaid is a work of fiction. Mermaids don’t exist. And even if they did, the racist claim that Ariel should be white (because of Andersen’s Danish roots) can easily be thrown out because Black people can be Danish too.
It’s uncanny that the outrage over The Little Mermaid coincided with other racist outrages. First there was Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, an ongoing fantasy series on Amazon Prime. The spinoff is the first time a diverse cast would be included in the world created by J.R.R. Tolkien. Not long after its premiere, the show received racist vitriol over the casting of Afro latino actor Ismael Cruz Cordova as Aronddir, a Silvan elf.
Black elves don’t appear in the source material, but it shouldn’t mean that they can’t exist. While elves are described as being fair skinned in the original Lord of the Rings books, Tolkein created a vast world where possibilities are endless. So why can’t a Black elf exist? Another racist controversy emerged from the Game of Thrones prequel, House of the Dragon. Steve Toussaint, who plays Lord Corlys Velaryon, received racist abuse towards his casting. In a universe of flying dragons and ice zombies, a Black character in Westeros is where the line is drawn.
Fantasy racism isn’t new. And the most malignant occurrences have been in live action adaptations of fantasy and dystopian materials. In 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, British-Nigerian actor John Boyega received racist ridicule from fans for playing a Black Stormtrooper. When Obi-Wan Kenobi started to air on Disney+, Moses Ingram, a Black actress who plays Reva Sevander, was subjected to racist online attacks from trolls and Star Wars fans alike. So severe that the show’s lead actor Ewan McGregor had to defend her. Star Wars, through its official social media accounts, was compelled to intervene.
From a fictional underwater world to Middle Earth to Galaxies far away, the notion that Black people shouldn’t exist in these places works against the logic of fantasy. As a popular entertainment medium, fantasy continues where the real world is constrained by limitations. In this imagination, rules and conventions are broken down to accommodate new realities. If Black people are already seen as inferior in the real world, why must fantasy media replicate such a dynamic?
And although different creators can make up their worlds according to their viewpoints, there’s always a wriggle room that a genre like fantasy provides. In these arguments, there’s a conflation of whitewashing and Blackwashing. Both don’t have the same stakes. Whitewashing is a continuum of white dominance. It is explicitly white hegemony. There are numerous ethnic characters that have been whitewashed to make them palatable for white appetites. This has unfolded both historically and contemporarily in Hollywood.
On the other hand, a Black person playing a white character originally known to be white comes from this position: where race doesn’t have any contextual weight or bearing on how a character navigates their world and making substitutions won’t lead to profound changes. Other times, it is done to reflect that diversity does exist.
If Black people can’t be elves or hobbits or dwarves in fantasy, in what world is this possible then?
Bernard Dayo is a film and fashion critic based in Lagos, Nigeria.