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Disney's live action 'Little Mermaid' makes a splash with young Black girls in St. Petersburg

A black woman wearing a aqua blue mermaid costume is flanked by two children. Light blue balloons in background
Octavio Jones
'Mermaid' Keara Clayton takes a photo with Lilah Jones 13, left, and Royalty Pierre 3, during the ‘Black on the Sea’ Little Mermaid screening party at the AMC Sundial Theater in St. Petersburg, Florida on Sunday.

In the original 1989 animated classic, Ariel’s character is white, with long red hair. But as little Black girls packed movie theaters over the holiday weekend, they saw an Ariel who is very much a reflection of themselves.

In the lobby of a St. Petersburg movie theater tiny bubbles float by bright blue party streamers hanging from the ceiling and treasure chests stuffed with sea shells are scattered across the floor.

As about 200 Black girls arrive for a private screening of the the Little Mermaid, each is handed a brand-new copy of a the book that inspired the movie, provided by Cultured Books Literacy Foundation. They also get a gift bag, which promises an assortment of gadgets, gizmos, whozits, whatzits and thingamabobs, a nod to a line in the song “Part of Your World,” from the Little Mermaid movie.

 Girls hold white gift bags at party.
Octavio Jones

Then, the girls line up for face painting and a meet and greet with a character dressed up as the Little Mermaid.

When 7-year-old Maya Brown steps up to the photo booth, the little girl's face totally lights up.

"I've never seen a Black mermaid before," she said. "I was like, really happy.”

A big money-maker

Walt Disney's live action remake of The Little Mermaid raked in more than $117 million over the holiday weekend, making it one of the biggest Memorial Day movies in box office history. It's also one of the few Disney movies where a young black girl is the hero of the story.

In the 1989 animated classic, the lead character Ariel the mermaid is white with long red hair.

In the live action remake, she's played by Black pop music star Halle Bailey. So, Maya and other young Black girls now have a princess that looks just like them. And like Keara Clayton, the 26-year-old model spending a Sunday dressed up in an aquamarine mermaid outfit, fish tail and all.

Octavio Jones

"I saw it the other day and literally cried throughout the entire film,” Clayton said. “Like, we have a Black princess in a Disney story and that’s extremely important because representation matters. They want to see that they're also able to go out and maybe audition to be a Disney princess themselves, you know?"

One party goer, Saniyah Henry, who's 5, looked very much the part of a princess, in a sparkly pink and seafoam green dress. She is a big fan of mermaids.

“I always wanted to be a mermaid because they can talk underwater," she noted.

Her mom, Kiana Henry, laughed as her daughter ran across the room after spotting an inflatable pool filled with plastic-colored balls. She quickly dove in, hoping to scoop up a ball with a sticker so she could win a free swimming lesson from Courageous Leap in St. Petersburg, one of the organizers of the party.

 Children surround an inflatable pool filled with colored plastic balls.
Octavio Jones
Children prepare to scoop up plastic colored balls with hopes of snagging one with a sticker, which means they have won a free swimming lesson from Courageous Leap in St. Petersburg.

A historic depiction

The excitement in Black households speaks to the historic significance of this movie moment.

In Disney’s nearly 100-year history, there has been only one Black Disney princess — Princess Tiana in “The Princess and the Frog.” And the singer Brandy starred in a 1997 made-for-TV film version of “Cinderella,” a remake of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.

When the Little Mermaid movie trailer was first released last year, viral videos on social media showed kids responding with joy when the new Ariel was revealed.

Tamia Iman Kennedy, of St. Petersburg, was in middle school when Disney released "The Princess and the Frog." She says that movie was a really big deal for a young girl who didn't often see herself represented in pop culture.

"Growing up, there were times where I craved to see myself more,” said Kennedy.

“You can feel like you don't fit in, or you can't be yourself. You know, a lot of times I felt like I had to minimize my Blackness and that's unfortunate. We hope that we can provide inspiration for young girls to pursue their dreams and embrace their cultural identity.”

Bringing the community together

Today, Kennedy, owns a multimedia production company called Black on the Scene, which produces positive stories about Black people.

 Three black women smile at camera
Octavio Jones
Kym Finch of Courageous Leap, Tamia Iman Kennedy of Black on the Scene and Lorielle Hollaway, owner of Cultured Books.

It was her idea to raise money on GoFundMe to rent out an entire theater so that 200 young Black girls in St. Petersburg could see the movie for free. She crowd-sourced on social media to invite caregivers, parents, churches, and community organizations to join the celebration and spread the word about the event.

But not everyone welcomed the new Ariel.

When the casting was first announced, the hashtag, #notmyariel trended on social media by people who complained about a white character being recast as Black. But Kennedy hopes the movie's success will persuade more studios to be receptive to diverse stories.

"Well, I think the negative backlash will come with anything,” she said. “But I think people will probably change their minds once they see the movie because it’s bigger than who you see, it's more so about the story.”

Back at the theater, that story is about to unfold when everyone is in their seat and loaded up with free popcorn and candy.

Two and a half hours later when the lights come up, the reviews pour in and are very enthusiastic.

“Best movie ever," declared one young girl as she happily bounced out of the theater.

As a reporter, my goal is to tell a story that moves you in some way. To me, the best way to do that begins with listening. Talking to people about their lives and the issues they care about is my favorite part of the job.
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