A black girl’s take on ‘A Wrinkle in Time’: Equal opportunity to be America’s darling
“A Wrinkle in Time” was a must-see film for me. It doesn’t mean, however, that Ava Duvernay’s $100 million film with a multicultural cast isn’t without problems. It is, which is one of the reasons the film has received mixed reviews – unlike the ongoing, wildly enthusiastic critical appraisal of the blockbuster “Black Panther.”
While it is wrong to expect from Duvernay what was achieved by Ryan Coogler just because both directors are African-American and moviegoers have never experienced back-to-back films with black actors as leads, the critiques about Duvernay’s interpretation of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic novel are not unwarranted.
What is unjustified are the racist critiques about using a young, black female actor to depict the universal themes of the messiness, complications, frustrations and uncertainty of girlhood.
“Teenage Meg Murry and her mother, both white like the rest of their family in the 1962 ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ novel, are portrayed in this film version by black actresses Storm Reid and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Dad is played by Caucasian Chris Pine,” movie critic James Dawson wrote in “The Federalist.” “Twin brothers from the book are missing entirely from the movie, which may be a blessing, considering that political correctness probably would have dictated they be played by a Native American dwarf and a disabled transsexual.”
Dawson is operating out of the tendentious belief, still regrettably heard by many today, that only white actors should portray, for instance, Shakespearean characters – unless, of course, it’s Othello, the Moor of Venice, since blackface is now no longer in fashion. These same bigots are outraged by black cast adaptations “The Wiz” (1978), “Steel Magnolias” (2012) and “Annie” (2014).
The #OscarsSoWhite movement of 2016 emerged out of the glaring absence of people of color. Outside of urban or comedic or hypersexualized racial stereotypes, a meaningful portrayal of African Americans in white films has been basically an anomaly. Today’s modernized versions of coons, thugs, mammies and maids are the expected roles for African-American actors in black and white films, which made “Black Panther” a seismic surprise and “A Wrinkle in Time” shockingly confusing to white moviegoers such as Dawson.
African-American female portrayal in films as children or adults are usually one-sided and painfully dehumanizing to watch: In 2010, the actress and comedian Mo’Nique captured the gold statue for best supporting actress in the movie “Precious” as a ghetto welfare mom who demeans and demoralizes her child every chance she can. In 2011, writer-director Dee Rees’ semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama “Pariah” depicted a mean, religious, homophobic mother.
But in 2012, Amandla Stenberg portrayed the character Rue in the blockbuster film “The Hunger Games.” The film script followed the book closely, unlike what prompted Dawson’s complaint about “A Wrinkle in Time,” but some fans were apoplectic nonetheless. The result was a tweeting tsunami of racist comments focusing on the presence of the few black characters in the film, especially of Rue:
“Why does Rue have to be black? Not gonna lie, kinda ruined the movie.”
“Kk-call me racist, but when I found out Rue was black her death wasn’t as sad.”
“Why did the producer make all the good characters black?”
“Awkward moment when Rue is some black girl and not the little blonde innocent girl you pictured.”
No surprise. Things are slow to change. Black little girls of my era weren’t seen on television. Before my era, watching old black-and-white films of Shirley Temple, the cherubic child star of the 1930s, only reminded me I could never be America’s little darling. Temple’s moments with the great African-American tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in five movies only cemented, for me, just how even cute, precocious and better tap-dancing little black girls could never be in step with the only accepted image of girlhood.
“I grew up in an era where there was absolutely zero, minus, images of girls like [Storm Reid] in pop culture,” Oprah said in an NBC News interview. (Oprah is Mrs. Which in “A Wrinkle in Time.”) “So I do imagine, to be a brown-skinned girl of any race throughout the world, looking up on that screen and seeing Storm, I think that is a capital A, capital W, E, some, AWESOME, experience,” Oprah added by phone. “I think this is going to be a wondrous marvel of experience for girls that in the future they will just take for granted.”
Storm Reid’s Meg in “A Wrinkle of Time” joins a few other little black girls in strong starring roles: Zelda Harris as Troy in “Crooklyn” (1994), Jurnee Smollett as Eve Batiste in “Eve’s Bayou” (1997) and Quvenzhané Wallis as Annie Bennett in “Annie” (2014).
Film critic Aramide Tinubu calls DuVernay’s adaptation of “A Wrinkle in Time” a love letter to black girls, and DuVernay depicts the film as being “black woman-ified.” In my opinion, it is not only a black woman-ified love letter, but also a shoutout saying, I see you Oprah. I see you Irene. I see you all with all your messy and wonderful selves.
Little black girls are in the shadow of this racialized, political moment of police brutality, school shootings and the #MeToo Movement. “A Wrinkle in Time” was my must-see film, because it the only time of late that I see young Irene’s and little black girls’ struggle depicted.
The Rev. Irene Monroe is a speaker, theologian and syndicated columnist. She does a segment called “All Revved Up!” on WGBH (89.7 FM) on Boston Public Radio and a segment called “What’s Up?” Fridays on New England Channel News.