NEW ORLEANS (WGNO) —Recent controversy arose for Disney’s upcoming live action movie, The Little Mermaid, which hits theatres May, 26, 2023. You can watch the trailer by clicking here.
The title song for both the original movie and the reboot is “Part of Your World” written by Jodi Benson in 1989. 2023’s version stars actress Halle Bailey. The controversy began with the posting of the movie’s trailer on YouTube, which generated 1.5 million dislikes because Halle Bailey is a person of color and the original animated Ariel had fair skin.
Shantrelle P. Lewis is a curator, filmmaker, and Yuroba practitioner from New Orleans, who began her journey into West African spirituality during a trip to Brazil.
“I’ve been a practitioner now for almost 18 years. I’ve been a priest for the past seven years. I was initiated as a Yoruba Lucumí priest of Shango. Vodou is the religion that came from Benin West Africa and is a part of the fabric of New Orleans. When you look at the iconography of mermaids, historically, they were Black. Mami Wata is Black. La Sirene is Black,” says Lewis.
New Orleans is home to a belief system of Vodou and in that belief system, water deities and spirits are paramount, as a source of power, and also are believed to be Black. One argument against Black mermaids is that mermaids are based on Greek or Norse Mythology. Mermaids and water spirits have been found in cultures throughout the world. During the transatlantic slave trade, West African stories of powerful water spirits were brought into the western hemisphere in the minds of the enslaved.
Kalindah Laveaux is Voodoo Queen Priestess in New Orleans and historian and believes representation is important saying, “I am a fan of our African American girls, being able to look at a movie and being very excited to see themselves. It was a direct belief that was carried over from West Africa, the belief also traveled through Haiti. You will see the belief in Candomblé in Brazil. You’ll see it in various places throughout the Caribbean and Latin America.”
“The particular Voodoo that we do here in New Orleans and Louisiana is very much centered around mermaids. The original iconography was half woman and half snake. Over time, it became half woman, half fish,” says Laveaux.
Ancestors are perhaps central in Vodou. Mami Wata’s definition is anything but simple. Both Laveaux and Lewis believe she is not exactly defined as a goddess or an ancestor, but a powerful divine force of nature who works through water.
Like in Christianity, water emersion is believed to be powerful in many traditional West African belief systems.
“This goes back to some very old stories that have been told about her taking us under the water and when we come up, we have a certain knowledge or power,” says Laveaux.
Representation can be simple and clear as water, or it can go deeper, for those who look under the water’s surface and find themselves and their own beliefs portrayed in popular culture. No one culture has the sole right to lay claim to a story, a belief, or an origin.
Change may not make something better, or worse, but change is inevitable in most cases, and what are stories if not explanations for how we view the world and over time, how we changed it?
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