Miss Hannigan wants you to like her on Facebook. Will Stacks, formerly Daddy Warbucks, is a bitter mayoral candidate exploiting foster children for the betterment of his campaign. Jay-Z arranges severely auto-tuned versions of “Tomorrow” and “It’s a Hard Knock Life.” This is Annie in 2014, a modern remake for the millennial generation.
While the movie won’t come out until Christmastime, the trailer’s release on March 6 garnered mixed reactions ranging from enchantment to disgust. Jezebel importantly noted that the film’s casting of African-American actors Quvenzhané Wallis and Jamie Foxx as Annie and Stacks would have been impossible when the original film version of Annie was produced in 1982. Yet, in a corporate Hollywood that is still largely white and male, the casting feels more like a determined effort to pander to “diversity” than a genuine statement of racial progress in film.
This new Annie film practically screams its underlying, yet blatantly obvious positive message. While the face of the Great Depression may have been a spunky, redheaded white girl, the face of our contemporary, technological America could be anyone; in this case, it’s a spunky black girl who lives with Cameron Diaz. This message is certainly a statement of progress, but it comes with a lot of implications.
The film was originally planned as a tandem box office blowout for Will Smith and his daughter Willow Smith, akin to The Pursuit of Happyness and After Earth, movies Will Smith starred in with his son. It was later recast with wunderkind Wallis and Academy Award winner Foxx.
But what should it mean to us that two African-American actors were cast in these interdependent roles? They provide each other with a safety cushion to keep the film from being too controversial. If a white actor was cast in one of the roles, Annie and Stacks’ “wholesome” family values and mutual reliance might seem too close for comfort.
Law professors Khaled A. Beydoun and Priscilla Ocen critically highlight in an article for Al Jazeera that it is the white male movie executives who dictate what sorts of “diversity” we are allowed to see and which actors will be allowed to succeed. The executives marginalize actresses of color who do not fit in with white standards of beauty and consistently reward actors who “played roles that perpetuate racial caricatures and embed societal stereotypes.” While Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar win is a step in the right direction, there is still much more ground to cover.
It is certain that the executives who managed this remake of Annie carefully considered which members of the “Hollywood club” they would bring into the cast. They face the burden of telling a well-loved story for children to an American public of all ages who grew up with the tale. They must weigh the importance of childish fantasy, fun and gimmick against the racially inclusive statements the movie purports.
Annie in an earlier form was “Little Orphan Annie,” a radio show from the 1930s, providing a fun escape from the harsh realities of joblessness and national pessimism. By the time “Annie The Musical” hit Broadway in 1977 and the movie version arrived in 1982 with a new context, it was a lighthearted fairytale about love and overcoming difficult circumstances – not about representing poverty or the plight of orphans.
The 2014 Annie remake is still a fairytale. Even if it’s modernized, the movie seems nearly as inaccessible to the people it represents as it was in 1982.