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Why Black Actors Belong in Traditionally White Roles Within Live-Action Remakes

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at FSU chapter.

In recent years, the most recurring type of film dominating Hollywood has been live-action remakes of popular media. In fact, since 2014, Disney has released at least one remake of one of their classic films per year, with their peak being five releases in 2019. While people have mixed opinions on the necessity of excessive live-action remakes, fans rally to see their favorite characters come to life before them. These committed fanbases are the driving force behind this dominating media. 

However, the rise of this new genre also allows the rise of new criticism, but for all the wrong reasons. As these films are produced, directors are choosing to go in new directions by casting people of color in roles that were traditionally white. Sadly, as often as this line of casting has been occurring, the backlash surrounding race has been just as frequent. Accusations of movies trying to be “woke” and having a “liberal agenda” have increased. It is also very common for any person of color playing a traditionally white role to be met with a multitude of racist remarks. What people fail to remember is that these actors are being cast based on their talent, regardless of the color of their skin.  

What many seem to forget is something worth realizing: white people have never lacked representation. It is a privilege to grow up seeing characters who look like you reflected in almost every single movie, subsequently being able to walk through Disney World in a Belle dress and not receive weird looks. It is that privilege that blinds people to the truth of how little representation POC receive in films and how disheartening it is to grow up with very few characters that reflect what you look like.  

When it was announced back in 2019 that Halle Bailey was taking on the role of Ariel in the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, she was immediately hit with criticism. People inundated her with a slew of racial remarks, coupled with the trending hashtag #NotMyAriel. Despite the negative reception, Halle Bailey’s Ariel is a clear example of why casting POC in such roles is so important. When the teaser trailer dropped in Sept. 2022, it was met warmly with thousands of videos showing young black girls reacting to finally seeing themselves reflected in their favorite princess. Grown adults can debate over the skin color of a mermaid all they want, but the excitement and joy of the kids being represented cements this movie and casting as impactful.  

Leah Jeffries recently took on the role of Annabeth Chase in the hit Disney+ series Percy Jackson and the Olympians, based on the popular book series of the same name. Despite being just 14 years old, Jeffries has approached the insane amount of criticism thrown her way with grace and assurance. True fans of the book series have pointed out how eerily accurate Jeffries is to Annabeth in the novels, noting that she is a true embodiment of the beloved character.

Rick Riordan, the author of the book series, has been actively speaking in favor of Jeffries and openly discussed the casting process in an article for Rolling Stone in November 2023. “We went into the casting process with no preconceived ideas. We saw actors of all races, ethnicities, body types, hair styles and backgrounds for all characters. That was important to me because I want all kids to feel included, represented, and honored in Percy’s world,” he said. “When we talk about ‘book accurate characters,’ I think about their personality, their humor, their courage, their fears and hopes, their interactions with one another. If someone’s understanding of ‘book accurate characters’ begins and ends with skin color, that’s a problem.” 

In discussions regarding diverse casting, the same questions always pop up. “Can’t they make original roles for black people?” They do. Networks love canceling them after one or two seasons, so those stories are rarely ever fleshed out. In addition, there have been calls for more original roles in black-led films, as it’s still pitiful that the only black Disney princess is a frog for a majority of her film. Still, original roles get just as much backlash, as the root of the problem is really not remakes but racism in general. The world is not just white, and expecting such from every release is a false reflection of the world today.  

“But what if they just hired them because they’re black?” First, time has shown that white people are able to gain opportunities and overall privilege just for being white. To reach an intellectual discussion regarding this topic, it’s vital to first understand your own privilege. Yes, diversity hires are a thing and should be a topic of discussion. However, it also isn’t fair to write off every diverse casting as a diversity hire just because you don’t agree with it.  

Secondly, if a studio or director is making the decision to cast a black actor, then they better be well prepared to defend the actor and their decision. In telling the difference, especially in film and TV, it is vital that the director and studio not only stand by and defend their decision but build the world they’re creating around diversity. Not only does Rick Riordan publicly stand by his decision to cast Leah Jeffries, but she is also not the only character cast as a different race on the show because a true reflection of the world is an inherently diverse one.  

At the end of the day, remakes are just different versions of the same film. If you’re not a fan of them, I promise the originals aren’t going anywhere. No one is forcing anyone to watch anything, but it’s well past time to put a stop to unnecessary criticism. These performances are incredible in their own right and bring to life iconic characters in new and exciting ways. These actors have proven themselves several times over to have the necessary talent and drive to dedicate themselves to any role, remake, or original. If you don’t recognize the importance of expanding diversity in Hollywood, then reflect on why that may be. Changing certain elements is essential to achieving a meaningful and inclusive piece of media. The world is not just one color, and it’s time to demonstrate that. 

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Cheyenne Cruz is a staff writer for the FSU chapter of HerCampus. Her work involves writing for personal experiences, entertainment and pop culture, and campus life at FSU. She is a Senior at Florida State University, majoring in Humanities and minoring in Hospitality Management. She also serves as the Event Planning Coordinator for the Themed Entertainment Association at FSU. In her free time, she loves reading and video chatting with her family just to check up on her dogs. She has a love for pop culture and a passion for discovering a myriad of films and tv shows, both old and new. Any song in her playlist is easily located from a movie soundtrack, and she loves bringing her new discoveries to so many different people.