If you’ve seen the trailer for Disney’s new live-action remake of it’s 1991 animated classic Beauty and the Beast, you may notice a few things. First, that the cast is speaking the Queen’s English, despite the story being set in rural France (but that’s nothing new). Second, everything you loved as a little girl (or boy) about the movie was perfectly replicated. Belle’s dress, the enchanted fixtures, the dramatic dungeon scene. That infamous opening that introduces the audience to the face of the Beast, the unlikely hero and leading man in a story that was all about seeing past stereotypes. As I watched the movie teaser this past week at the theater, it suddenly occurred to me that I had seen this all before — and not on a movie screen.
The premise of Beauty and the Beast is eerily similar to the trials and tribulations of being a Black man in America. Pourquoi? Aside from the 2002 remastered version randomly making the Beast illiterate (the prison vs. college myth was debunked back in 2012), one can draw quite a few comparisons between the often under-analyzed fairytale character and the way America views Black men today.
In the last quarter of the movie, the villagers' torches light the night, trekking into the woods in search of the Beast, determined to take his head. They have already rallied in favor of their self-important heist, despite the threat being completely imagined. They are intimidated by the size and capacity of the Beast and they are convinced he’s nothing more than a mindless creature. This is reminiscent of the way in which police culture has diminished the value of Black men by using overly aggressive methods of force long before it’s necessary. This is made evident by looking at the numbers. Among Black men, 1 in every 15 will be incarcerated compared to 1 in every 106 white men. What is typically assessed from these numbers is that Black men simply commit more crime. But when you factor in the overwhelming case for racial profiling and targeting, it’s easy to understand that if you are more likely to be stopped by an officer, you are more likely to be arrested.
The idea of the Beast in this movie seemed to heavily outweigh the reality. Painted as a creature that would surely come after the village people in the night, he was actually just trying to survive, thrive and realize what it means to be loved and appreciated. As a Black woman with Black uncles, a Black father, Black son and a Black support system, I don’t need to be educated on the complex simplicity of loving and being loved by a Black man. But society tends to see them in one dimension. They are either anomalies or criminals. They are either seen as lazy and insignificant or as a rare exception praised for having above average talent. Outside of the Black community, there really isn’t enough of a normalized perception of Black men in America.
One thing that always stood out to me about Beauty and the Beast is the complete dehumanization of the Beast character, who goes through the entire movie without mention of his name (Adam). Instead, he is referred to, be it lovingly or with disdain, as “Beast.” Similar to how often Black men in the news are identified by their lowest accomplishments. The media has famously presented an unfair bias when it comes to reporting crimes involving Black men versus white. In cases such as those of Mike Brown, Mark Duggan and Trayvon Martin, the first images published by the mainstream news portrayed them as criminals. A study by Color of Change dives in deep regarding the dehumanization of Black men in media.
If Black men are seen as the ravenous savage, then whatever thoughtful soul gives mercy to him is definitely seen as his “great savior.” This idea that a Black man can’t help himself without the assistance of the white public or a woman to “fix him” is almost as absurd as any other idea that Black men are otherwise incapable of amazing things. Belle comes along to break the spell that was cast over Beast and his castle and, of course, she is the ultimate heroine. Seeing past his rough exterior and hardened and aggressive demeanor, she was the one to ultimately set him free. The lesson, of course, is to be like Belle and take a closer look at those we initially abhor. The lesson on the other side of the table isn’t so appealing: Wait around for a white girl to save you.
Just think about that if you are among the hoards of millions that will be flocking to the box office this weekend. Disney probably didn’t have Black men in mind while constructing the character outline of the Beast, but we can't ignore the similarities.
One thing I draw confidently from this analogy is that Black men, like Adam the Beast, are severely misunderstood by most of society, completely underestimated and often denied their right to truly shine. In the face of possibly one of the most challenging years we’ll face as a community, I’m most certainly here for the Black man magic glow up.
(Photo: Walt Disney Pictures, Mandeville Films)