By LaKeisha J. Crye
Jackson Advocate Guest Writer
This opinion piece is a rebuttal to the criticisms of Ms. Sara Stewart, a “film and culture writer” whose article, Opinion: I hated ‘The Little Mermaid’ is featured on CNN. On Sunday, May 21st, my family and I engaged in our regular Sunday fellowship at my parent’s country home in Utica, MS; a home that was built with love and the hands of two hardworking, blue-collar individuals. As always, our fellowship was filled with roundtable discussions on a variety of issues accompanied by quality southern food and exotic desserts such a Berry Chantilly Cake from Whole Foods Market. As a child growing up in the county, my siblings, cousins, and I had minimal contact with the busyness of the city. Since we found enjoyment in making mudpies and engaging in other outdoor activities, going to Jackson for a night at the movies was unheard of and even undesired. However, I do recall faint memories of seeing “Purple Rain” on a big screen at the age of five; a 1984 provocative film featuring Prince and one that I later independently appreciated. Since then, my big screentime with my family has been scarce. However, on Sunday, the 21st when we all agreed to go see “The Little Mermaid”, I was excited to move our table fellowship to the theater for a day.
I desired for all fifteen of us to sit together so I purchased our tickets in advance on Thursday, three days before our Sunday fellowship on the 28th. Our party ended up being sixteen on row G of the Capri Theater in Fondren after one of my cousins who was in town for a wedding ended up coming. The youngest member of our family who had a reserved seat for the blue sea adventure, exchanged laps as I had done during the “Purple Rain” escapades.
Although I have lived in Fondren since 2014, I have felt disconnected from its community and culture due to a perceived fear that was instilled due to periods of historic segregation and racism in Mississippi, and quite honestly, after being traumatized after watching “The Help”, a 2011 film featuring Viola Davis; one that was based on the written accounts of African American domestic workers in Jackson, MS through the work of Kathryn Stockett in 2009. As I watched the workers in this film, they reminded me of my grandmother who prided herself in dressing in her white pressed uniform and apron as she served hundreds if not thousands of Jewish children and families during her time at Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, MS as a cook and sitter. My grandmother transitioned peacefully in her bedroom in 2018; the same room that served as her office space as she was also a natural counselor. She loved her family, including the Jewish families that she took care of, which is why the mistreatment of the domestic workers displayed in “The Help” was disheartening and responsible for my evasion of my white neighbors. It took me the longest to do any grocery shopping at McDade’s (now Corner Market), let alone allow my oldest daughter to work there, as the painting of the white lady with the red headscarf on the front of the building was a stark reminder of the externally pleasant face of inward hostility.
However, over the years, I have come to appreciate something different. My white neighbors and I have eaten at kitchen tables and celebrated holidays and special occasions together. Although I have not excused myself to any of their bathrooms, I remain hopeful for an angel soft experience in the event thereof. We have worshipped and prayed together, as my daughters attended Red Door Jackson for years; an afterschool program housed at Fondren Church. Last year, I finally updated my voting location. Before, I would drive to South Jackson where the voters looked like me. However, I found the workers and voters at the new Fondren location to be pleasant and friendly, unlike the angry mob that I envisioned based on historical attacks on the Black voter. We have survived difficult times together, as we all shared what resources we had during water and garbage crises in the City of Jackson. It was my white sisters and brothers at Fondren Church who supplied my household with plenty of bottled water during the most recent water crisis.
Although I have been embraced through these experiences and more, I still found myself avoiding the entertainment strip of Fondren. As I had done previously, I would drive distances to safeguard any threat to my emotional and physical wellbeing. Last year, however, my daughter went on her first date to the Capri Theater; an anchor of the Fondren community since the 1930’s, and one that was rebuilt and reopened in January of 2022. She came home that night sharing her pleasant experiences of the theater and her accompaniment, and the gruesomeness of “Halloween Ends”. Unfortunately, my thoughts of being subjected to some form of racial prejudice did not end, and it wasn’t until my family and I agreed to go see “The Little Mermaid” together that I was willing to take a chance on overcoming my fear.
On Thursday night after eating dinner, I had my daughter accompany me in purchasing our tickets for Sunday’s matinee. I figured that her presence would comfort me in what I had imagined would be my hostile attempt at integrating a public facility that in reality had long passed the test of racial inclusiveness. To my pleasant surprise, however, the ticket greeter was a polite, young, yet tall African American male. On Sunday, I arrived early to scope the inside area to ensure my safety and that of my family. Again, I was relieved by the pleasantries of another African American young person who was multitasking by greeting ticketers and working the concession area. My family arrived on time, and all sixteen of us sat in the entire middle row of a Black and white audience.
“The Little Mermaid” was a highly anticipated film not only by my family and I, but the world waited to see a beautiful showcase of love, courage, and diversity. The remake of the 2023 film starred Halle Bailey, a young and aspiring African American actress whose caramel complexion was a perfect reflection on the waters of the sea and of the beauty and talent that is often diminished in motion pictures. As Ms. Stewart noted, this role was “long-overdue” as African American children and families have long awaited to see familiar faces on the big screen. In addition to the star of the movie, I was also fascinated by the incorporation of a Black queen (Noma Dumezweni) and a Black mermaid named Tamika (Sienna King)! Although heard and not seen, Daveed Diggs, a beautiful blend of Jewish ethnicity and African American descent, showcased his amazing vocals as Sebastian the Crab. To be clear, I am not and do not aspire to be a movie critic. However, much of Ms. Stewart’s CNN commentary deserves my rebuttal.
She began by summarizing “The Little Mermaid” as “the story of a mermaid who gives up her voice to be with the man of her dreams.” Instead, I summarize “The Little Mermaid” as a story of a courageous mermaid princess (Ariel) who sacrificed her life for something greater, which is no different from a woman who sacrifices her career to start a family. Ms. Stewart also noted that the remake “retained the central plot, which confers happy-ending approval on a young woman making bodily-harming sacrifices in order to get the guy.” While I do not agree with bodily-harming sacrifices in general, I also do not believe that anything in the film was suggestive of self-mutilating behaviors, let alone any societal approval of such. Furthermore, is Ariel’s sacrifice any different from a woman, particularly a Black woman, who risks her life and that of her baby’s during childbirth; an experience that is unarguably the riskiest of all “bodily-harming sacrifices”?
Ms. Stewart too suggested that the film was “sexist.” In my opinion, it showed a young man who was confident and comfortable with having more than just a female companion during his tours of the world, as evidenced by his offer and her acceptance of driving a carriage through town and his careful teachings on world geography. Also, did we ignore that it was the courageous actions of Ariel who saved her prince and others from destruction?
Ms. Stewart also had criticisms of King Triton (Javier Bardem), who in her opinion “mostly looks bored.” She further suggests that his daughters are ridiculously submissive and are part of a patriarchal society. In my opinion, King Triton is not bored, yet depressed, most likely due to his wife being killed by humans. As a result of this tragedy, I feel as though his protection of his daughters is admirable; yet, it is clear and understandable that he has difficulty with letting them go due to a valid fear.
Ms. Stewart also commented on the music in the film, one in which she described as “a rap song for Awkwafina as the seagull Scuttle, a number which is brief but so tonally different it brings the scene to a screeching halt.” In my opinion, this was one of the most creative and enjoyable songs in the film, as it not only had a nice rhythm, it also communicated an urgent message in a way that was entertaining and familiar to a culturally diverse audience. Furthermore, it is this type of creativity that is often seen in classrooms where teachers are using Hip Hop and other styles of music to grasp the attention of learners, a method that is well worth the investment as seen with the young scholars at the Gertrude E. Ellis Head Start Center in Byram, MS.
On a positive note, Ms. Stewart did credit Halle Bailey as being “the best thing about this movie.” While I do agree that Ms. Bailey superseded my expectations of Black excellence in film, I felt that the best thing about “The Little Mermaid” was that it highlighted the richness of cultural diversity, and even at my age of forty-four; it gave me hope for a new chapter in my life. Most importantly, it has given me the courage to swim deeper in the uncharted waters of Fondren and other places that I once feared. In conclusion, I loved “The Little Mermaid”, not only because it was such a great movie, but it also reinvented old traditions of family engagement and togetherness.
Reference: Stewart, S. (2023). Opinion: I hated ‘The Little Mermaid.’ CNN. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2023/05/27/opinions/hate-little-mermaid-movie-disney-stewart/index.html.