Since Disney announced in 2019 that Halle Bailey would play Ariel in the live-action remake of The little Mermaid, every little ad about the film was met with outrage over the fact that a black woman played the title character. That fervor came to a head when the first teaser dropped recently, showing Bailey singing “Part of Your World” from the original film. Since then, there has been an avalanche of fury from a mostly white, mostly right-wing media that simply hates the idea of a black Little Mermaid.
While anger over Disney’s choice garners the most attention, films such as The female king and the next Black Panther: Wakanda Forever are also facing backlash and trending hashtags about boycotts. But unlike The little Mermaid anger, many of those expressing angst about the other two films are not from conservative white media. So what exactly do these boycott threats and outrage have in common? They take aim at films that center on black women — a target that unites groups that would otherwise be on opposite sides of the political aisle.
The Little Mermaid a backlash was to be expected. Black characters — especially black women — who take on roles that weren’t originally black have been a growing source of abuse and anger in recent years. White audiences targeted Jodie Turner-Smith for playing Anne Boleyn. They came after Anna Diop for portraying Starfire in teen titans, even if that character is an alien. Even when black actors play quirky characters, they’re often harassed simply for existing in spaces where white people don’t think they belong – like Moses Ingram or John Boyega in the star wars universe or Steve Toussaint in Dragon House. Thus, a black woman playing the role of Ariel in The little Mermaid had to upset people who look down on black people anyway.
Because, let’s not twist things: that’s what it’s all about. Whatever excuse these anti-black figures give for their rationales — which range from pseudoscientific reasoning to made-up mermaid stories — these are white people who hate the notion of black women being centered in any story, not to mention the ones they valued as symbols of white pride. Those who are angry only feel such a deep connection to Ariel’s “legacy” once a black person dares to break it.
Whereas The Little Mermaid the backlash is easy to explain and, in most cases, to ignore as another chance for some to speak out against racist stereotypes, reactions to The female king and wakanda forever are more complicated.
The female king, which hits theaters on September 16, was always going to be a movie that had to pass a fine needle between praise and historical fact. The film focuses on the kingdom of Dahomey and its all-female fighting force, the Agojie warrior women, known for their fearlessness and military prowess. However, Dahomey was also a cog in the transatlantic slave trade, selling other Africans into slavery. The Agojie were also brutal, as detailed in Zora Neale Hurston’s posthumously published 2018 book. barracoonin which she interviews Cudjoe Lewis, who had been taken prisoner and sold by Dahomey in 1860.
As the film approached its release date, the true story of the Kingdom of Dahomey began circulating widely online, with social media accounts popping up to state that they would. boycott the movie. #BoycottWomanKing trending during the week of the film’s release.
The Woman King is not a perfect historical account of Agojie. Although the film does not detail the depths of Dahomey’s involvement in the slave trade, a central conflict is the kingdom’s role in the sale of fellow Africans to Europeans, an issue that many who declared the film as anti-black thought he wouldn’t settle. The film is not perfect and deserves a thoughtful review, as any art form deserves. (I was actually more disappointed with the one-dimensional portrayal of the Oyo Empire, which also sold Africans into slavery, as money-hungry villains without giving them a deeper motivation or story.)
While this criticism is valid, the full-throated attacks on the film and its stars make it seem like legitimate criticism of the artistic choices is being used as a means to suppress another project with black women at the forefront. Much of the #BoycottWomanKing hashtag is full of misogyny, anti-gay bias, and newly created Twitter accounts that tweet only about the movie, indicating that they are most likely bots. Many also come from those who use the hashtag #ADOS or have this acronym, which stands for American Descendants of Slavery, in their profiles. The ADOS group is part of a true reparations movement for Black Americans, but has been used online as a way to attack black people, namely black women, who disagree with their tactics. In this case, their specific criticism is about African Americans celebrating a movie about people who have hurt African people. These criticisms turn into vitriol and sometimes even into threats.
Many of these stories are of the kind that perpetuate contempt for black women under the guise of seeking what is best for black people. We saw the same when Harriet was released in 2019. The film played fast and loose with history, but this legitimate criticism turned into online abuse from those involved with the film and those who tried to defend it. Although these accounts claim to be pro-black, their treatment of black women is anything but. Instead, they perpetuate the same anti-blackness white voices they swear to fight against.
The National Reviewfor example, wrote a dismantling of The female king for his depiction of African involvement in the slave trade, and political commentator and comedian Bill Maher make a point to evoke that Africans sold other Africans into slavery in a typically simplistic take that conveniently obliterates the racial element of the transatlantic slave trade and its ubiquitous vestiges that are still felt today.
I’ll keep my global anger reactions white The female king brief because it is clear that the film was not made with Tthe national magazine reader in mind. But I must note the irony of people who are angry when statues of slavers are torn down, outraged by a film that “sanitizes” the protagonists’ role in the slave trade.
I also wonder how many of these people who plead for a boycott of The female king in the name of black solidarity glorify films such as american mobster and fully paid about real-life men who made millions selling drugs in black communities. The brutality of many of these men’s lives is also glossed over in Hollywood to ensure they are the protagonists of their stories.
When the Black Panther after wakanda forever comes out in November, we’ll see the same calls to boycott white anti-black and pseudo-pro-black accounts again. We have already seen its beginnings. Men like Boyce Watkins (who endlessly shames Lizzo and other black women) have noted that the lack of a replacement for Chadwick Boseman coupled with black women in lead roles contributes to a kind of feminization of Wakanda history. Watkins himself said the film felt like a “chick flick”. As The Woman King backlash, the root of the controversy is initially grounded in something real: a desire to see T’Challa’s story continue on screen. It’s a sentiment I found myself sometimes agreeing with. But the movement to replace the Black Panther character is slipping into thinly veiled anger at the fact that the film appears to be centered around black women. #RecastTchalla became #BoycottWakandaForever overnight.
It may be hard for some to imagine Twitter accounts claiming to be about black liberation sharing much in common with readers of Maher or Breitbart. At first glance, one appears to be far left and the other far right on the political spectrum. But often that straight line is bent in a circle, with the two opposing sides meeting exactly at the point where they shoot black women down.
When internet personality Kevin Samuels claimed to be talking about building strong black families and improving black relationships, he was only disparaging black women and calling them unlovable. At the time of his death, he was a leading voice for black men who claimed to be in the business of improving blackness, but really wanted as wide a platform as possible to trash black women. Complaints about black women in lead roles wakanda forever under the false pretense of being about black freedom is no different than white men who pollute the airwaves with their anger at a black siren under the false pretense of “tradition.”
Unfortunately, attacking black women knows no political affiliation, race or social status. It’s as pervasive and vicious as it is illogical. Ironically, such hatred is one of the reasons why films such as The little Mermaid, The female king and wakanda forever are necessary. These movies aren’t above criticism — so long as that criticism is aimed at making them better as art and improving us as art consumers and not as a cynical vehicle for hoarding more misogynoir.