Image courtesy of Disney
Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of the classic children’s book isn’t about budgets, creative license, or even Oprah. It’s a film by and for awkward Black girls. Finally.
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You never appreciate representation until you get some.
For anyone who was an awkward, painfully defensive, bespectacled biracial girl. For anyone who had parents who were scientists. For anyone who attended a multiracial school with a Black principal (only schools with Black principals, actually). For anyone who was often taken under the wing of wacky women in festive dress. For anyone with that specific brand of biracial hair that Black hair stylists relax within an inch of its life and white stylists squeal looks “like a poodle’s!” before calling over the one stylist who “does curly hair,” which is apparently the equivalent of disabling a land mine. For anyone with a kid of mixed parentage and friends with emotionally abusive dads. For anyone who doesn’t expect adult women to be the same size as their teenage daughters. For anyone who, frankly, likes glitter: Ava Duvernay’s A Wrinkle in Time is heady stuff.
It’s been 25 years since Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale finally established that, Yes, Black people like to read. (Not incidentally, that was around the same time my first boss in publishing informed me that we didn’t. My mother was a professor of English and an M.D., actually, but I guess that doesn’t count.) A few years later, when Whitney Houston purchased the film rights to McMillan’s book, Hollywood was equally astonished—What? Black people liked movies, too?!
But given the institutional amazement at the billion-dollar receipts of Black Panther and Get Out (to say nothing of the other Marvel pioneer heard ’round the world, Wonder Woman), nobody exhaled. For the entertainment world, each critical and commercial success showcasing black folks—The Color Purple, Boyz N The Hood, Glory, hell, Hamilton—is the first time. Or, as the New York Times put it: “A Whole Lot is Riding on This New Wrinkle.”
This is too bad, because even if A Wrinkle in Time had blasted past Black Panther and Get Out like Gaudior off a Projection, DuVernay isn’t making history for Black people in cinema. She isn’t making history for sci-fi adaptation, for adapting weird novels, or even for the first woman of color to get a directing budget north of $100 million. (That’s Jennifer Yuh Nelson for Kung Fu Panda 2.)
She’s making movie history for girls.
If there’s anything girls never get to be, it’s ugly and cranky. Madeleine L’Engle’s novel was revolutionary because its heroine was both. Within the first few paragraphs, Meg gets a black eye in a fight. Her classmates scorn her. Her brothers are disgusted with her. Her teacher threatens to hold her back. She looks at her hair, bares her teeth, and calls herself a monster. And the next day, the principal calls her the most belligerent, uncooperative child at school.
Amid all the hoopla over whether DuVernay would film those synchronized balls on Camazotz and how tessering (the way the characters in the story move through time and space) would look, I was most worried about whether ugly, unlikable Meg would get to keep her power. Disney is pretty fond of makeovers, and the book’s Meg needs her ugliness—not to feel good about herself, but to save the world.
I had nothing to fear. If anything, DuVernay doubled down. Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon in the film) won’t let us forget how unappealing Meg is, trying to kick her off the mission at every turn for being a poopy-pants. And, because the movie’s Meg, Storm Reid, is gorgeous, DuVernay finds a significant way to challenge what society sees as ugly—for a heroine of color. Calvin (Levi Miller), who in the book tells Meg she has “dreamboat” eyes, in DuVernay’s version, says he likes Meg’s hair twice. (Even when it’s in a wet bun!) In fact, when the terrifying brain, IT, presents it’s new and improved version of Meg, her locks are studiously straightened. Relaxing isn’t only unnecessary, girls. It’s evil.
Before A Wrinkle in Time, if you wanted to show your daughter-of-color a heroine who looked like her, you were pretty much stuck with Princess Tiana, Mulan, or Akeelah and the Bee. (And two of those are animated.) If you wanted to show your daughter a famed children’s heroine who also felt like her—angry, weird, annoyed and annoying—good luck with that.
But, in a country where real-life Black girls are seven times more likely to be suspended than white girls, where they can actually be sent home for how they style their hair, a heroine who wears hers natural and says what she thinks is vital. In 1978, L’Engle saw that for a white heroine to fight and be good at math challenged claustrophobic stereotypes. In 2018, DuVernay acknowledges that it’s dangerous for girls of color to simply be.
“Civil-rights work and social-justice work take imagination,” DuVernay said recently. “To imagine a world that isn’t there, and you imagine it can be there. And that’s the same thing you do whenever you imagine and insert yourself in a future space, or in a space where you’ve been absent.”
There’s a reason #100blackgirlbooks became a movement; a reason a 14-year-old was able to raise $100,000 to get girls into a screening of the movie. It’s a response to all those hairstylists, police officers, teachers and administrators who can’t imagine a Black Meg in the world. At the movie, I saw moms and dads bringing daughters of all colors—even a few sons—to watch this Meg save it.
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