A MARTINEZ, HOST:
Disney recently released a trailer for a new live-action film of "The Little Mermaid," featuring 22-year-old Halle Bailey, who is African American, as the lead character.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LITTLE MERMAID")
HALLE BAILEY: (As Ariel, singing) Out of the sea.
MARTINEZ: Now, almost immediately, video started circulating of young Black girls reacting to the trailer, delighted to see a character from a beloved children's movie who looked like them.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: She's Black.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: She's Black. Yes, yes, yes.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: I can't wait to see this.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: Oh, my God.
MARTINEZ: However, the casting resulted in a backlash from people who object to seeing a character who was depicted in a cartoon as white reimagined as a Black woman. Here to tell us all about this is NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Eric, now, it seems odd to me that people would react to a fictional character and object to it, like Ariel from "The Little Mermaid," being played by a Black woman. So what do you think is going on here?
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: You know, we joke about how it's easier for people to accept a talking crab and flying dragons than a nonwhite Ariel or Black people as elves. But, you know, I think it's obvious that previous versions of these franchises were strongly rooted in white culture. I mean, Ariel in the 1989 film was a white, red-haired woman.
There's another recent example, too - a new series called "The Lord Of The Rings: Rings Of Power" on Amazon Prime Video. Now, "The Lord Of The Rings" franchise, which includes several movies, often depicted elves, which are kind of like the superheroes of that universe - you know, they're immortal, and they're amazing fighter - as blond and fair skinned. The villains, the orcs, are swarthy, dark and monstrous. Now, "Rings Of Power" isn't following that paradigm quite so strongly. It has a nonwhite elf. So changing that dynamic feels jarring to some fans. And these changes also play into one of the great myths of racist thought, which is that people of color want to replace white people at the top of society, rather than trying to get equality and seek an end to racism.
MARTINEZ: OK, so what are some of the arguments that you have heard, Eric, against such multicultural casting?
DEGGANS: Well, you know, mostly I see people insisting that the original intent of the author of the work wasn't to include nonwhite people and that the intent should be respected. You know, I've gotten emails from people suggesting, for example, that the author of "The Lord Of The Rings" books, J.R.R. Tolkien, based his story on European medieval culture and history, and so its focus on white characters was to be expected. And I wrote a column in response to this. You know, I noted that enshrining beloved characters as forever white is kind of the definition of white privilege. You know, you're creating this sense of belonging and cultural domination that just gets passed down through the decades.
The reaction of those little Black girls to the thrill of finally feeling included is proof of the power of these moments and how little they happen for people from some marginalized groups.
MARTINEZ: You also wrote that adding diversity actually makes these TV shows and films better. How so?
DEGGANS: I've always thought that TV shows and films about a different age, even if it's fictional, are as much about the times in which that work is created as the times that they're depicting. So it makes sense that these franchises would add characters of color to reflect our modern times. It was always wrong to not have prominent characters who were nonwhite, and I'm glad to see these modern works change that.
Also, multicultural casting allows for a wider range of performers to appear. It increases the chances you're going to cast the best person for every role. The new "Little Mermaid's" Halle Bailey looks like a great example of that. Writers can also tell different, more relevant stories. Why are there nonwhite elves and dwarves in Prime Video's "Lord Of The Rings" universe? Was there ever any racial tension in that universe because of skin color? I mean, I can't think of a more interesting way to get at some of the discussions we're having about race and representation right now than to tackle them in the worlds of great fantasy franchises.
MARTINEZ: That's NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Eric, thanks.
DEGGANS: Thank you.
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