Black Children Today Will Remember Ariel With Red Locs—and More

Here's how changes to 'The Little Mermaid' inspired one mom to reflect on her relationship with Black characters of the 90s.

Actress Halle Bailey is surrounded by Black girls at a special screening of 'The Little Mermaid.'

Joi Stokes/Getty Images For Disney


A few spoilers ahead!

Growing up in Washington, D.C. during the 1990s meant being surrounded by a Black community that was everywhere—from the teachers and classmates who helped instill my sense of self, to the neighbors and community workers who I interacted with on the weekends. Attending Howard University—also in my neighborhood—about a decade later, I realized that this rich Black neighborhood was actually not the norm and is, instead, a luxury that I often took for granted.

I reflect on this now, especially, having grown up in the same now-gentrifying community where my three children reside and knowing that they have a different experience. It is more diverse—which is great—but lacks the spirit of the Black mecca known as Chocolate City for decades.

I was an only child who binge-watched a lot of television. I loved sitcoms, recording many half-hour series on my VHS tapes during long summer days at my grandparents’ row home. I have hours-long recordings of Sister, Sister, Moesha, and My Brother & Me. And I’d tune in faithfully, too, into Family Matters, Kennan and Kel, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. One summer, I watched Crooklyn every single day.

What was the common thread between all of my favorites? Seeing Black main characters on television. Before the streaming days, I’d essentially used VHS to curate my own little network of programming for kids that centered Black families.

As an adult, witnessing the remake of all of my childhood classics before my very own eyes, I have the privilege of also showing my daughters the original versions of some of their current favorite shows, like The Proud Family. With the arrival of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, I didn’t revisit the original. It’s a film that I had little connectivity to—beyond the merchandise—and I wanted my daughters to be able to experience the magic of seeing themselves on screen. 

Sometimes, conversations about representation might feel dated because today there are so many well-done shows, toys, and songs that center children of color. But it’s large cultural moments like the arrival of The Little Mermaid—and my lack of connection to the original—that highlight how homogenous Disney films and princesses actually were and how hard it can be to connect as a child when you don’t see yourself represented.

But Halle Bailey is not only a Black woman, she's a Black woman with locs. I still have conversations with other parents (yes, in 2023) about hair, braids, and respectability. Casting Halle is no small nod to the celebration of hair diversity, in addition to racial diversity. 

This time, The Little Mermaid includes multiracial families and love interests, and the cast's chemistry is organic and natural. Bailey comes from a multicultural family and so does Eric (played by Jonah Hauer-King).

Bailey shines as a mermaid with her gaze on the human world. Her stunning locs are flowing through the water and the cinematography cast just the right light on her beautiful bronze skin. We also see Black royalty with Eric’s mother, Queen Selina, played by Tony-award-winning actress Noma Dumezwini. Dumezwini is fiercely protective of her son, cautious of mermaid Ariel, but also dotingly caring for Ariel when she is cast ashore and taken into the royal home.

Additionally, this time, the underwater kingdom of Atlantica is off of a bustling Caribbean coast, full of good food and music, instead of Denmark which was author Hans Christian Andersen's home. Audiences will also be aware that these characters have pasts that motivate their actions, from the tenuous relationship between Ursula (played by Melissa McCarthy) and her brother Triton (played by Javier Bardem)to Eric's adoption after his mother died in a terrible storm.

I began reflecting on what other films might have done multicultural casting well, and I realized that we can't talk about Halle Bailey as Ariel without discussing Brandy as Cinderella. Brandy, another natural icon with her signature braids, was groundbreaking in her role as Cinderella, a 1997 made-for-TV Disney remake that also featured the iconic Whitney Houston as Cinderella’s fairy godmother. But again, this film didn’t receive the blockbuster treatment—the McDonald’s collaborations and plethora of Target merchandise—that major Disney films receive.

Thankfully, The Little Mermaid provides communities of color the opportunity to show up for our children and make this rendition of the film an experience that our families won’t forget. There were many Black children donning t-shirts with Ariel’s photo on them, while some of the adults went full Comic Con with Mermaid-inspired outfits and Ursula gear. Disney cements characters in our memories for a lifetime. I’m happy that Black children of today will remember the magic of a new kind of Ariel.

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