Annie’s Tomorrow, Today
By: Mallory Harris
While one year-end blockbuster provoked political tension and a series of cyberattacks, another proved itself to be equally powerful in different ways. The 2014 remake of Annie is quietly poised to have a huge impact on the way elementary schoolers perceive race. The musical is clearly not trying to invoke controversy or make a bold political statement, but makes the necessary adjustments to modernize Annie’s story. It doesn’t need to be divisive, as the target audience for this film (children under ten) likely hasn’t developed strong racial biases yet. Plus, the goal of this film isn’t to explore racism, at least not directly.
At its core, the new Annie is an updated remake of the 1977 musical, whereas the 1982 and 1999 Annie films both merely adapted the musical to screen. In the newest film, characters mention Facebook and reality TV. “Hard Knock Life” even has a professionally produced and cringe-worthy Emoji lyric video. Luckily, the filmmakers realized that modernizing Annie didn’t simply mean handing the characters iPhones.
The story is no longer set during the Great Depression and does away with the fun, albeit kind of weird FDR cameo from the first two movies (they still mention the New Deal for any seven year-olds who might feel cheated out of references to economic recovery policies from the 1930s). Since American orphanages have been almost completely replaced by the foster care system, it follows that modern orphan Annie would live in foster care. The racial composition of Annie’s foster home accurately mirrors current demographic trends in foster care, with two white girls, two black girls, and one Hispanic girl. Also note that all musical adaptations of the “Little Orphan Annie” comic strip neglect to include the subplot involving Daddy Warbucks’ dying from depression following the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
But what about Annie herself? Quvenzhané Wallis is inarguably qualified for the part, being the youngest child actress ever nominated for a Best Actress Oscar (for Beasts of the Southern Wild). However, according to Twitter, having Annie played by a black actress “defeats the idea of who Annie is.” Which raises the question of who they actually think Annie is. None of the film adaptations have been expected to include comic strip Annie’s battling “internationally based enemies” and “criminal gangs.” Nor do any of them quite capture comic strip Annie’s creepy, eyeless stare.
A lot of people seem hung up on the hair, but the 1999 Annie had straight auburn hair for all but one scene. Plus, Annie’s hair is meant as an outward manifestation of her spunky, vivacious personality. Nowadays, there’s nothing more brave and rare than a black girl wearing her hair naturally, a point driven home by the criticism Jay Z and Beyoncé have received for not perming their toddler’s hair. In fact, many believe that the original Annie’s hair was meant to combat racist sentiments against Irish immigrants, which were common in the early 20th century. Harold Gray, Annie’s Irish creator, had his protagonist befriend an ethnically diverse cast of characters, including a Jewish American and an Italian American character. It follows that Gray would thus wholeheartedly support this reimagining of his character and its promotion of universal acceptance.
Note also that by casting Jamie Foxx as Will Stacks (Daddy Warbucks), Annie avoids falling into the white savior film trope, wherein selfless white characters save the poor black child from a life of tragedy (see The Blind Side). With Jay Z and Will Smith as executive producers, it only makes sense that the powerful billionaire would be black.
While changing Annie’s race doesn’t impact the storyline, it will hugely influence its young audience who likely won’t really be cognizant of the uniqueness of this film. Young black heroines are few and far between in popular cinema and white moviegoers tend to avoid films that feature predominantly black casts. However, Annie’s movie poster includes four adult actors, only one of whom is black (and one of whom is Cameron Diaz).
Studies show that movies are a powerful tool for creating empathy. For example, movies that focus on the struggles of patients help medical students better understand their own patients. By making young viewers consider the world through the lens of a young black girl, the film serves as a powerful tool for fostering understanding and respect between children in a world that remains racially polarized. Furthermore, it will allow black girls to finally see themselves in film, rather than having to constantly imagine themselves as white characters. Additionally, this casting mirrors a growing trend in Hollywood and Broadway of casting actors based on merit rather than race, finally allowing black actors options aside from the archetypes: sassy friend, wise and mystical Morgan Freeman-type character, etc.
Whether her hair is red or black, Annie has always been an icon for transcending class boundaries. It only makes sense that after successfully enacting the New Deal, she’d move on to tackle America’s ongoing racial conflict.