Disney’s new live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid is under fire yet again, this time for lacking historically accurate details on slavery.
Marcus Ryder, the Head of External Consultancies at the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity, has penned a scathing blog post slamming the film for lacking details on the slave trade. Ryder has over 25 years of experience advocating on the issue of diversity in media in the United Kingdom, and is the former Chair of the Royal Television Society’s Diversity Committee.
Writing at Black On White TV, a blog dedicated to examining issues of race and diversity, Ryder said that the problem with the children’s film is its “treatment of historical transatlantic slavery.”
Although Ryder raves about the visual effects and casting of Halle Bailey, a black actress, to play the lead role of Ariel, Ryder condemns the film for “pretending slavery didn’t exist” despite appearing to be set in the 18th century Caribbean.
“Children’s films should not ignore the more difficult parts of our history, just because adults feel uncomfortable addressing them,” Ryder writes. “The film is set in the Caribbean in the 18th century. It does not specify exactly when, but judging from the ships, clothes and other references it is during a time of African chattel slavery. And yet there is not a single direct reference to slavery and the islanders live in racial harmony.”
Ryder calls the film’s lack of any references to racism or the slave trade “dangerous,” continuing that it is a “total erasure and rewriting of one of the most painful and important parts of African diasporic history.”
Ryder also blasts the decision for Ariel and Eric to be represented as an interracial couple, writing that it is “literally the equivalent of setting a love story between Jew and Gentile in 1940 Germany and ignoring the Jewish holocaust. Or possibly more accurately setting it in a slave plantation in America’s antebellum south and pretending the enslaved Africans were happy.”
The Little Mermaid’s casting drew similar criticism in 2019 after the initial acting choices were slated and it was first announced that Jonah Hauer-King, a white English actor, was cast to play Ariel’s love interest.
In a now-deleted social media post, Christian Navarro, best known for his role in the Netflix hit show 13 Reasons Why, slammed Disney for its alleged lack of diversity.
“Literally @disney saw a who’s who list of actors of color and STILL went with the white guy,” he wrote on Instagram alongside a photo of Hauer-King, which was captured by a fan before it was removed. “So much for diversity. I guess two brown leads would have tanked the movie, right? Boring.”
Criticism over the film’s lack of diversity paradoxically comes at a time when the decision to cast Halle Bailey in the lead role is also under fire. According to Variety, The Little Mermaid, which premiered worldwide on Friday, May 26, 2023, was also the target of “review bombing” after garnering 41,000 ratings on IMDB, 39% of which gave the lowest rating of 1-star. Many have claimed the flood of negative reviews was due to “racism” from “trolls” upset about the film’s reimagined casting.
Shortly after its release, IMDB, an online database of information on movies and TV shows, implanted an “alternative” rating system in response.
As previously reported by The Publica, an “alternative” rating system was applied for the film rather than the typical user-submitted system after the platform claimed it detected “unusual activity” amongst reviewers.
Currently, the film has been assigned a 7.1/10 by IMDB using the “alternative” system, but raw user reviews place it at just 4.6/10.
Despite all of the controversy the film has garnered, it grossed an estimated $117.5 million in the United States during its opening long weekend. The movie’s international performance, however, left much to be desired as it struggled to meet expectations in Asia.