Yara Shahidi is revealing just how much thought she puts into the roles she accepts. In an in-depth interview with Byrdie, she reflected on everything from what it means to turn 23, how she balances a demanding work schedule with her education, and her upcoming role as Tinker Bell in Disney’s live-action remake Peter Pan & Wendy, set to be released on Disney+ in late April.
Before accepting the role, though, she said she spoke to director David Lowery about the reasoning behind Disney wanting to retell this particular story.
“I loved his response," she told the outlet. "They wanted to bring some new fun to this classic but also give us the fairy tale we deserve. It's evident they're not just popping Black and Brown folks in the cast for the sake of updating the story. Instead, it's about creating a story that so many more people can see themselves in after we've been left out for so long."
Her sentiments are a far cry from the feedback shared by critics back in 2009 ahead of Disney releasing The Princess and the Frog, which starred the first Black princess, Tiana, played by Anika Noni Rose. This New York Times article cited the disappointment of Black critics at the time who saw the movie before it hit theatres. They expressed frustration over Tiana’s prince not being Black, the setting of the story being in New Orleans, a site of tragedy for the Black community, and Ray the firefly, voiced by Jim Cummings, who some felt sounded too much like the stereotype of an “uneducated Southerner.”
The chatter wasn’t all negative, though. The article also featured a Black mother named Donna Farmer who said she was content with Disney’s diversity efforts – and that Black people should know what to expect from Disney, of all companies.
“Who knows if Disney will get it right? They haven’t always in the past, but the idea that Disney is not bending over backward to be sensitive is laughable. It wants to sell a whole lot of Tiana dolls and some Tiana paper plates and make people line up to see Tiana at Disney World.”
It's that same sentiment about wanting to sell merchandise and drive more people to visit Disney World that speaks to the importance of intention when it comes to casting more people of colour in their films. Like Yara said, is it to simply “pop” Black and Brown folks into the cast for the sole purpose of updating the story?
It’s a question that could be ask of the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, set to be released in May. When it was revealed that Halle Bailey would be starring as Ariel, toxic fandom was on full display, with the trailer for the film receiving 1.5 million dislikes from angry fans on YouTube. Comment sections were set ablaze for weeks on end and there was even a Twitter user who was suspended for using AI to replace Halle’s face with a white redhead.
To combat the intense scrutiny of the casting, parents began sharing videos of their kids reacting to the trailer, driving home Yara’s point about the importance of creating stories that a wider range of people can see themselves in after being left on the outside for so long.
It’s a wonder why there was so much outrage over Halle’s casting. Especially considering that Black and Filipina singer H.E.R. was cast as Belle in the 2022 musical version of Beauty and the Beast and that Peter Pan & Wendy will premiere a month earlier than The Little Mermaid – yet there wasn’t nearly as much outrage and discourse over these castings. Is it that Ariel is a more beloved character than Belle and Tinker Bell? Is it because Yara truly is the perfect candidate for the reprisal of Tinker Bell? Is it because, according to Yara, her role is “small”, though significant?
It truly comes down to intention. Disney has made a concerted effort in recent years to reimagine its classics as more inclusive – and people are recognizing that and starting to appreciate it. If it were a one-off, with a Black casting happening every few years, we’d see a lot more outrage. It’s natural that Black critics had a lot to say in 2009 – it was the first time they were seeing a Black princess and they wanted it to be done right. Now, though, as it becomes more commonplace to see Black women in these films, especially when parents are capturing the joy on kids' faces over seeing fairies and princesses that look like them, it's beginning to drown out the toxic fandom, the harsh reactions, and a bit of the criticism as well.
The more Disney focuses on being more inclusive, the better the stories will become and the less tokenizing they’ll be.