Last year, Academy Award-nominated African American actress Quvenzhané Wallis was confirmed as the lead role in the Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith-produced remake of the classic movie Annie. She'd just been nominated for her amazing portrayal of Hush Puppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild and received a lot of buzz as a rising star in Hollywood. I don't recall much fanfare around the announcement—I guess people were too focused on making jokes about the talented young actress being the "c-word" (prompted, ironically, by Quvenzhane's correction of a reporter who attempted to shorten her name to Annie).
Image: Sony Pictures
I was excited when I first heard the news, because I've enjoyed the movies the Smiths have produced, and I am happy to see more African American producers, directors, writers, and actors making movies that tell diverse stories everyone can relate to and enjoy. Don't get me wrong—I love the culturally nuanced stories, the stories of hardship, the family-centered movies, ripe with tradition and laughs, and the historical dramas. Sometimes, though, I just want to see a good movie that features a diverse cast without making race the center of the entire story.
The trailer for Annie was released last week, and people across the web weighed in, as it has now become the standard when news of new movies or music becomes available. The reactions were mostly supportive, but there were, unfortunately, many comments expressing displeasure at the idea of little orphan Annie being Black. From being disappointed that she wouldn't have red hair and freckles to comments about how the casting goes against tradition, people found every way possible to let it be known that a Black Annie is not a good idea. Many even began their statements with, "I don't mean to sound racist, but..." or some other preamble letting us know that they were, in fact, about to say something racially insensitive.
Here's the thing: Annie's race is not essential to her role. Little Orphan Annie began in the 1920s as a black-and-white comic strip featuring a little girl who had no pupils.
Image: Ryan Brunsvold via Flickr
At that time, the default race for protagonists was a White person—mainstream American media (newspapers, literature, film, radio) rarely depicted people of color in positive, leading roles that appealed to everyone. Annie's story reflected the Great Depression and spoke to the poverty and struggles felt across the country, particularly in big cities like New York City. As Annie evolved, she became known as the red-headed, freckle-faced cute little girl with a feisty personality who won the hearts of everyone she encountered. Still, though she was a lovable ginger, I don't believe her race was not essential to her story.
In 1932, Little Orphan Annie starred Mitzi Green, a Bronx, NY native who was a dark brunette. Fifty years later, the most popular version of Annie featured freckled Aileen Quin who donned the red hair everyone has come to think of as a signature of the Annie character. I get that, believe me I do. Most searches related to Annie include people talking about her red hair. There are several fictional characters that have carved certain images into our hearts and minds and it becomes difficult to imagine them any other way.
I can't image a White woman playing Celie from The Color Purple nor can I imagine an African American woman playing Chiyo from Memoirs of a Geisha. The difference with those roles is that race and ethnicity are essential characteristics of those characters and are at the center of the stories; changing their portrayal changes the meaning a great deal. In none of my memories of reading the comic strip or watching the movie do I recall Annie's Whiteness being centered as cause for her being an orphan, running into Daddy Warbucks, or singing about how the sun is going to come out tomorrow.
We have accepted Annie, as is, because we've had no challenges to her imagery and for many people, such changes are unacceptable. They're going to have to get over it, though, because Annie is going to be played by a young African American girl, an Academy Award-nominated actress, and judging by the trailer, she is doing to do a fantastic job.
Why is no one upset about Daddy Warbucks (now Benjamin Stacks—hello! Name change!!) being an African American man? Or that an African American man is actually a billionaire, since that is a rarity in America? Why is no one critiquing Miss Hanigan being a Cuban-American?
Where is Punjab?? For crying out loud, what is Annie without Punjab????
People are not really complaining about any of the other changes being made to the story, though. They are focusing on the star being African American and that saddens me because it shows me that Blackness remains problematic for so many people, even when represented in a child. In a time when we are seeing so many of our young people shot dead because people claim to be afraid of them, when they're doing nothing wrong, this is heart-breaking. The innocence of African American children is virtually nonexistent, and I believe that is why some people struggle to accept an Annie who has brown skin and thick, afro-textured hair—she is supposed to represent the youthful innocence and joy that African American children are not often allowed to have.
You can't pronounce her name? That's not her fault, and it should not be a source of ridicule. Kwuh-VEN-Jah-nay. Now you can.
You can't imagine a little Black person with red hair? That's unfortunate. Malcolm X had red hair, by the way.
You struggle to imagine a young African American girl being able to win the hearts of millions by giving new life to a 32-year-old movie? That becomes an issue you're going to have to work on because in 2014, racial diversity is paramount to societal progress. Little Black girls need to see themselves on television and in film. They need to see positive representations of themselves that are connected with the idea of them being beautiful. Little Black girls face physical insecurities and body image struggles, too, and a lot of it is because of the messages they receive when they're erased from the mainstream.
This new version of the classic tale of Little Orphan Annie is going to make magic happen. I can feel it. I cannot wait to take my son to see it and I can only hope I don't cry too much watching history being made.
Image Credit: Sony Pictures
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