A Colorful World: Dive into the Sea of Blackwashing

Illustrate of "The Little Mermaid." Photo by Piya Nim from Unsplash, https://unsplash.com/fr/photos/femme-en-robe-jaune-assise-sur-un-personnage-de-dessin-anime-de-grenouille-verte-96GHTK1il8Q

Different transnational perspectives on the “Blackwashing” controversy over The Little Mermaid and its history in Hollywood.

Image of red(ginger)-haired Ariel created by Disney1

When the news broke in 2019 that Halle Bailey had been cast in the movie version of The Little Mermaid, one could see the sparks of controversy starting to fly. Some people complained about white, red(ginger)-haired Ariel being replaced by an Afro-textured-hair Black actress. Critics did not care how good the movie adaptation would turn out to be, they cared about how the story of The Little Mermaid would be told.

It was not the first time this had happened. In 2016, there was controversy over the casting of a Black actress as Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. In the Harry Potter series of films, Hermione was played by a white actress, but in the theater version of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the role was played by a Black actress. Harry Potter’s fans could not accept this change.2

So why has Hollywood suddenly started to show more Black actors in more movies? Is it to show a better representation of minority groups, or have directors and producers suddenly figured out that they were being racist and decided to change? And if so, does it make for better movies if we ignore the historical facts or the original source material and just replace white heroes or main characters with Black people?

The Black Little Mermaid3

These questions have been raised by many haters or simply critics who talk about “Blackwashing” in order to obscure the essence of efforts to change the film medium for racial diversity. Therefore, in this feature article, we are going to first of all find out what exactly “Blackwashing” means and how it originated. We will then try to understand the recent Little Mermaid controversy through the history of blackwashing in Hollywood and finally compare reactions in different countries. 

One of the difficulties with “Blackwashing” is actually to find a proper definition of this concept. It seems that there are two opposite definitions of the term: one is mostly positive and the other one is rather negative.

 “Blackwashing” is the practice of changing a character from white to Black in order to diversify film casts and increase representation of Black people on screen.4 According to Alyssa Smith, “Blackwashing”can be construed as promoting equal treatment. 

While “whitewashing” is used to describe the feeling of painting something clean, and “Blackwashing” is used to describe the feeling of painting something dirty.5

“Blackwashing” is not only used to refer to the replacement of white actors with Black actors but also, occasionally, to refer to the portrayal of any race other than white. For example, people who criticized the choice of Rachel Zegler, who is of Colombian and Polish descent, in the live-action adaptation of “Snow White”, have referred to this casting of people of color as “Blackwashing.6 This illustrates the limitations of the word when used from a white-euro-centric perspective. 

Let us try to historicize this concept of Blackwashing. The early American minstrel shows used Blackface to portray African Americans in a negative light. Historically, white people have used Blackface to describe Black people. Especially in movies, the roles of African Americans are always negative, while white roles are just and have a diverse appeal.7 So, even though the population is becoming more diverse in the United States, why has Hollywood (the US movie industry) continued to make mainstream movies with white heroes/protagonists?8

I asked that question to Prof. Michlin Monica, who is a specialist of Contemporary American Studies (Literature, Film & TV series),  at Université Paul Valéry Montpellier 3. 

Michlin explains that the reason Hollywood continues to make mainstream movies with white heroes/protagonists despite the diversity of the US population is because the producers of most movies (music, etc.) are white men. The only way to change this discriminatory representation is through organizing movie theater boycotts or mobilizing audiences on social networks, like the movement #OscarsSoWhite did a decade ago, to put pressure on the white male producers who still make up the majority in the industry.

Morgan Freeman, Actor. 

Morgan Freeman, Actor. He played an Ellis “Red” Redding(Irish-American) prisoner in the movie.9

There have been many different reactions to Blackwashing in Hollywood. An example of how Blackwashing has got a positive response and outcome is the 1994 movie “The Shawshank Redemption,” which was based on the novel “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” The main narrator in both the novel and the movie is an old Irish-American prisoner. His name is Ellis “Red” Redding. As his name suggests, the typical image of this Irish-American would be someone with red hair. However, in the movie’s casting, the role is played by Morgan Freeman, a Black actor.10  He initially turned down the role of an Irishman, but eventually racked up an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his playing “Red.”11 At the time, no one criticized the choice of a Black man to play “Red”. The character’s nickname is “Red,”  but it’s not really important to the story. Movie audiences will only remember Tim Robbins (the main character) and Morgan Freeman. Ellis “Red” Redding was afraid that he would never fit in after being released from prison. But he finds hope and takes a courageous step forward. This is notable because unlike many Black actors in the past who have only played negative roles in movies, in this film, a Black actor was given a positive role with the most important message in the movie. “The Shawshank Redemption” shows racial diversity naturally and without forcing it. No clichés or mockery were used in the process, the film shows the audience the diversity of races in the movie by presenting them naturally and without clichés.

There have also been some negative opinions about Blackwashing, particularly when the producer replace actors (from white to Black) in a choice that doesn’t take into account the culture and history of the source material and doesn’t consider racial diversity.12 A documentary and movie about Egypt’s iconic female ruler, Cleopatra, was criticized for miscasting her because of her dark skin color. An Egyptian lawyer sued Netflix, claiming that it was discriminatory to ignore the historical basis for Cleopatra and erase Egyptian history.13 Any change that does not represent racial diversity in a progressive and positive way is interpreted as nothing more than a cowardly device for economic gain.14 The “Queen Cleopatra” documentary starring Adele James is a clichéd, muddled mess that does not advance anything except her casting. This lack of progress will only hinder the steps towards racial diversity in film. For example, a deficient film like “Queen Cleopatra” will be used as a basis for racists to claim that some films’ efforts towards racial diversity are discriminatory. This constant controversy based on different grounds of racism has been going on for a while now. So I can ask a few questions about the constant debate: are the polarizing opinions on these controversies the same in every country? Are some Asian countries immune to these issues because they have a lower percentage of Black people in their population than the U.S.? To answer these questions, let us compare the reactions of a few countries.

In the United States, it is understood that the controversy surrounding The Little Mermaid is unfounded, with the claims about its ‘origin’ and ‘scientific basis’ being incorrect.15 The controversy stems from racism and white supremacy, bringing scientific evidence to a fictional movie that has nothing to do with reality, and treating everyone who supports The Little Mermaid‘s step toward racial diversity as an idiot. The Washington Post interpreted the social media movement of #NotArial as nostalgia for the past among white working-class Americans at the time, President Donald Trump appealed to white, working-class individuals who feel marginalized by America’s increasing diversity.16 The debate on “Blackwashing”has been going on since before Trump’s election, but it has been fueled by extremist voices on social media. Michlin states that ‘dominant’ audiences – in this case, white people -, being accustomed to seeing themselves reflected, often express resistance when asked to identify with actors or actresses who do not resemble them.

But how has Europe, an ocean away from the movement, reacted to the controversy? In Europe, the controversy surrounding The Little Mermaid is perceived as a clear case of racism.17 As usual, racists will find endless reasons to criticize movies that seek diversity. For example, racists hide their racism by claiming on scientific grounds that Ariel, played by Halle Bailey, can’t keep her reggae hair underwater and that her skin should be pale.18 These ridiculous rationales are meant to create controversy and suppress phenomenons like “Blackwashing.” The Guardian said, this cycle will repeat itself, and the moment we cease fighting for equality, minorities start to losing the rights they have ‘earned.’

China and South Korea have shown reactions that differ from those of the previously mentioned countries.19 They view the controversy through the lens of political correctness rather than focusing on the film’s racial diversity. Both countries have expressed concerns over the increasing standards of political correctness. Several Asian countries harbor suspicions about whether the move towards racial diversity is motivated by financial interests.20 In reality, the discussion of racial diversity in Asian countries is an emerging issue.

It is intriguing to observe varying global reactions based on culture; however, the “Blackwashing” controversy represents another form of sexism, particularly impacting Black actresses. While these controversies involving Black male actors are less common, controversies about Black female actors are easy to find on the internet. Black male actors are relatively free from this problem. There have been notable examples, such as the casting of a Black actor in the role of Captain America, which symbolizes progress in racial representation within the American heroic narrative. However, the casting of a Black female actor in the role of The Little Mermaid has immediately sparked controversy. The standards for change in diversity are more discriminatory and controversial, especially for women. Hollywood’s historically Eurocentric (White) tendencies have often marginalized women of color, including Black actresses. The phenomenon of ‘Blackwashing’ thus signifies a positive step toward more inclusive representation in the film industry.

Chris Evans

Chris Evans, Actor.21

Falcon new captain america22

The aforementioned Oscars are changing from a predominantly white-dominated film festival to embracing greater diversity through diversity standards.23 While some may view this change negatively as discriminatory, Michlin argues that it enables currently invisible people, both within and outside the film industry, to contribute to scriptwriting and bring forth a wider array of narratives and identities. According to her, this shift towards inclusivity can enrich the American national identity with more diverse perspectives. It is not necessary to alter all roles to feature different racial or ethnic backgrounds. We can engage audiences with stories of new characters spreading positivity. 

 

 

Black Panther, the black hero24

The success of Black heroes, like Black Panther, has empowered many Black individuals by providing representation and fostering a sense of pride and belonging. Movies provide a platform for audiences to empathize and connect with actors portraying diverse characters. This representation fosters empathy and understanding among individuals from various racial backgrounds. When Halle Bailey played the role in The Little Mermaid, many Black children were happy and impressed to see that the Little Mermaid was Black.25 The casting of a Black actress in The Little Mermaid broke away from the traditional casting of a white hero/protagonist and set a template for racial diversity. The “soft power” of The Little Mermaid was able to break down prejudice and discrimination. 

“Soft power” is about shaping the preferences of others through attraction and persuasion rather than through force or payment. Black people should be proud of their culture and be able to share their shared values through movies. Building on these values, movies should educate and bring up natural and new ideas rather than a mindless change to “Blackness”.

  1. Photo by Chad Sparkes from Kissimmee,Florida, United States, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons []
  2. Milvy, Erika. “Nine black Hermiones, and ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ still won’t talk race
    .” Los Angles Times. Dec 1, 2019. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2019-12-01/black-hermione-harry-potter-cursed-child. Accessed 21 Mar. 2024 []
  3. By Pequena Sereia, imported 8 Nov , 2023 []
  4. Smith, Alyssa M., “Whitewashing v. Blackwashing: Structural Racism and Anti-Racist Praxis in Hollywood Cinema” (2021). Senior Independent Study Theses. []
  5. Hame, “Is blackwashing a real issue? Is it bad?”  https://www.quora.com/Is-blackwashing-a-real-issue-Is-it-bad. Accessed 4 Mar. 2024 []
  6. Tegami. “Disney is ruining people’s childhoods with black-washing.” Kbizoom. June 16, 2023.  https://www.kbizoom.com/disney-is-ruining-peoples-childhoods-with-black-washing-said-chinese-media/. Accessed 21 Mar. 2024 []
  7. Mulata, Mala. “White guilt and Magical Negroes. Racist storytelling normalises Black inferiority.” Medium. Sep 13, 2020.  https://aninjusticemag.com/white-guilt-and-magical-negroes-how-racist-storytelling-normalises-black-inferiority-297cedeba219. Accessed 20 Mar. 2024 []
  8. Jones, E Ellen. “‘There are no black people on Game of Thrones’: why is fantasy TV so white?.” The Guardian. Apr 6. 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2019/apr/06/there-are-no-black-people-on-game-of-thrones-why-is-fantasy-tv-so-white. Accessed 28 Mar. 2024 []
  9. Photo by Georges Biard, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons []
  10. Chandler, Sarah. “How Shawshank Redemption Is Different From The Book.” Looper. Jan 27, 2021. https://www.looper.com/321289/how-shawshank-redemption-is-different-from-the-book/. Accessed 19 Mar. []
  11. Polowy, Kevin. “Role Recall: Morgan Freeman Narrates His Own Journey Through ‘Glory,’ ‘Shawshank,’ and More.” Yahoo Entertainment, 8 Apr, 2014.
    https://sg.news.yahoo.com/role-recall-morgan-freeman-narrates-own-journey-glory-190011415.html. Accessed 11 Mar. 2024. []
  12.  Waheed, Jabeen. “Adele James discusses ‘blackwashing’ backlash to Queen Cleopatra: ‘I’ve every right to have a shot at humanising this incredible woman’.” Glamour. 4 May 2023. https://www.glamourmagazine.co.uk/article/adele-james-queen-cleopatra-interview. Accessed 11 Mar. 2024.  []
  13. Lawes, Ruth. “Egyptian lawyer sues Netflix for ‘blackwashing history’ in Jada Pinkett Smith’s documentary Queen Cleopatra.” Metro. 20 Apr 2023. https://metro.co.uk/2023/04/20/netflix-sued-by-lawyer-over-blackwashing-history-in-queen-cleopatra-18643012/. Accessed 19 Mar.  []
  14.  Johnson, Cedric.”Don’t Let Blackwashing Save the Investor Class.” Jacobin. 24. June 2020. https://jacobin.com/2020/06/blackwashing-corporations-woke-capitalism-protests. Accessed 19 Mar. []
  15.  Willingham, AJ. “Analysis: A definitive rebuttal to every racist ‘Little Mermaid’ argument.” CNN. 17 Sep, 2022. https://edition.cnn.com/2022/09/17/entertainment/little-mermaid-racist-backlash-halle-bailey-disney-cec/index.html. Accessed 4 Mar. 2024. []
  16. Newman, Brooke. “The white nostalgia fueling the ‘Little Mermaid’ backlash.” The Washington Post. 9 Jul 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/07/09/white-nostalgia-fueling-little-mermaid-backlash/. Accessed 4 Mar. 2024. []
  17.  Joudet, Murielle.“The Little Mermaid’: Disney embraces kitschy nostalgia.” Le Monde. 24 May, 2023. https://www.lemonde.fr/en/culture/article/2023/05/24/the-little-mermaid-disney-embraces-kitschy-nostalgia_6027909_30.html. Accessed 4 Mar. 2024. []
  18.  Mahdawi, Arwa.“Little Mermaid’s racist critics pollute magical undersea world with bigotry.” The Guardian. 17 Sep, 2017.https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/sep/17/little-mermaid-racist-critics-backlash. Accessed 26 Mar. 2024. []
  19.  “The Little Mermaid’ shows Disney’s lazy storytelling strategy.” Globaltimes. 25 May, 2023. https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202305/1291330.shtml. Accessed 4 Mar. 2024. []
  20. IM, Jeong-Won. “The Little Mermaid’ remake hits theaters May 24.” Korea JoongAng Daily. 24 May, 2023. https://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/2023/05/23/entertainment/movies/Korea-The-Little-Mermaid-Disney/20230523171655334.html. Accessed 4 Mar. 2024. []
  21. Image by Bùi Xuân Trường from Pixabay, 13 Nov 2021 https://pixabay.com/fr/illustrations/captain-america-steve-rogers-6789190/ []
  22. Image by Chil Vera from Pixabay, https://pixabay.com/fr/illustrations/ai-g%C3%A9n%C3%A9r%C3%A9-homme-afro-am%C3%A9ricain-cool-8168112/ []
  23. Buchanan, Kyle.”The Oscars’ New Diversity Rules Are Sweeping but Safe.” The New York Times. 16 March, 2021 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/09/movies/oscars-best-picture-diversity.html. Accessed 25 Mar. 2024. []
  24. William Tung, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons []
  25. Stoney, Ashley. “Black Children Today Will Remember Ariel With Red Locs—and More.” Parents. Nov 20, 2023. https://www.parents.com/black-children-today-will-remember-ariel-with-red-locs-and-more-7504770. Accessed 10 Avp. 2024. []

OpenEdition vous propose de citer ce billet de la manière suivante :
junghyunlee (8 avril 2024). A Colorful World: Dive into the Sea of Blackwashing. (Hi)Stories. Consulté le 19 juillet 2024 à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/11pje


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