Children’s films should not ignore the more difficult parts of our history, just because adults feel uncomfortable addressing them.
The question is: How do we make films for children of all races that acknowledge the horrors of historical events such as slavery, while making sure they are free to imagine a wonderful world unencumbered by racism and are not defined by it?
On Sunday I watched the new live action version of Disney’s The Little Mermaid with my six-year-old son.
The visual effects are stunning and the casting is brilliant. If you are not aware, and at this point you would literally have to be living under a rock in the middle of the ocean not to be aware, Halle Bailey plays the eponymous heroine in a celebration of normalising Black beauty standards for children.
For my young son to see the most beautiful character in a film as a Black woman (with non-straightened hair) is important to me as a parent and goes against literally centuries of White beauty standards and societal norms. It is anti-racism at work on a deep level.
However there is one jarring massive problem with the film and it is less about its treatment of contemporary racial issues and more about its treatment of historical transatlantic slavery.
The film is set in the Caribbean in the 18th century. It does not specify exactly when, but judging from the ships, clothes and other references it is during a time of African chattel slavery. And yet there is not a single direct reference to slavery and the islanders live in racial harmony.
In this setting, I do not think we do our children any favours by pretending that slavery didn’t exist. For me Disney’s preference to try and wish the inconvenient truth away says more about the adult creatives than it does about children’s ability to work through it.
The enslavement of Africans in the Americas (across the southern states of the US, Caribbean and South America) in the 18th century was a brutal time and has been described by some historians and commentators as a “holocaust”, a crime against humanity that is so heinous that there are calls to this day for reparations to compensate the descendants of the victims.
Setting the fantastical story in this time and place is literally the equivalent of setting a love story between Jew and Gentile in 1940 Germany and ignoring the Jewish holocaust. Or possibly more accurately setting it in a slave plantation in America’s antebellum south and pretending the enslaved Africans were happy.
The 18th century Caribbean is a problematic time to set any children’s story, but that should make it full of creative possibilities as opposed to encouraging historical amnesia.
First of all, I do not need every story and movie that my 6-year-old consumes to be historically accurate. The appearance of steel pans in the film, an instrument invented in the late 1930s, raised a wry smile in the pedant in me, but I found it easy enough to overlook. But the total erasure and rewriting of one of the most painful and important parts of African diasporic history, is borderline dangerous, especially when it is consumed unquestioningly by children. I do not want my child to think that the Caribbean in the 18th century was a time of racial harmony, any more than I suspect a Jewish father wants his child to think 1940 Germany was a time of religious tolerance, however much we might both wish they were.
So does this mean Black children cannot have escapist fantasies of the past, or all our historical stories have to overtly address racism and slavery?
I want my Black son to be as free, joyful and unencumbered by horrors of history just as much as any of his White and Asian friends at school, but I also do not want him, (or any children) to be given a false view of history on key issues - slavery being one of them.
There are several ways in which Disney could have easily set The Little Mermaid story in the Caribbean in the 18th century and not whitewashed (excuse the pun) the importance of history.
For example they could have set the story in Haiti post-1804. Haiti was the first Caribbean country to throw off the shackles of slavery and most importantly in its constitution of 1805 explicitly denounces the idea of different “races” proclaiming true equality. According to Julia Gaffield, a professor of history at Georgia State University, the constitution even “explicitly acknowledged that some ‘white women,’ Germans, and Poles had been naturalized as Haitian citizens highlighting the radical reconceptualization of race that underpinned Haiti’s entry on the world stage.”
In this scenario the Little Mermaid could have easily found her prince, while race and slavery could have been gently touched upon without being overbearing or having to show the horrors. A post revolutionary Haiti would have been the perfect setting for an island of racial harmony, and in doing so it would have gently educated children about an important period in world history.
When we think creatively and know our Caribbean history there are numerous solutions to setting the story in the Caribbean during the time of slavery while neither wanting to erase our history or expose children to the full horrors of chattel slavery. As someone of Jamaican heritage I would have loved the Little Mermaid to fall in love with a Maroon (a runaway slave), although that would have required her to swim a little upstream towards the island's interior.
We owe it to our children to give them the most amazing fantastical stories possible to help their imaginations grow. We do not do this by “whitewashing” out the difficult parts of our history. We do it by embracing our rich history and empowering them with the truth. Next time I hope Disney can be as adventurous with its story telling as it was with its casting.