In the face of critics who are already writing brainless articles about why the new Annie will “probably be terrible,” I am ecstatic. In the midst of those who shout down Quvenzhané Wallis for being too spunky, too confident, too something, I am absolutely psyched for this movie and I’ll tell you why.
Because it’s about a black girl. A black girl who lives.
A blogger and thinker who I’m a big fan of, Son of Baldwin, posted the trailer to the new Annie on the Son of Baldwin Facebook page. The caption to the post: “I hope this movie makes black girls everywhere feel visible and cherished.” I could echo those sentiments a million times, and I will add to them here: I am excited about this film because it is a story about a black girl who wins.
For those of you who are asking why we need to focus on the concept of black girls winning, I will cite an earlier blog of mine here. Yes, it’s needed. Positive portrayals of black girls and women in mainstream media are far and in between, especially in the context of coming of age stories. A coming of age story is one that focuses on the psychosocial development of a youth or a group of youths and it usually involves great conflict and transformation. So often these stories focus on boyhood: formative experiences like those in Stand By Me. Google it. Google “coming of age movies” and you will find that the stories our culture says define coming of age are those like The Sandlot or Superbad. For boys of color there are far fewer, but some: Cooley High. Boyz in the Hood. School Daze. Try Googling “coming of age movies for girls” and you’ll find a lot less. The Breakfast Club, which is about young men and women, all of them white, is one that appears. In fact, almost all of the coming of age stories focusing on girls feature all-white casts. Mean Girls. An edgier film about sex and orgasms called Coming Soon. Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Clueless are two that appear a lot, both of which cast girls of color but the vast majority of the narrative focuses on the experiences of white girls.
So what about black girls? Their absence is troubling. As a society we give a lot of thought about the formation of women, especially in recent decades: we are interested in their stories. We are curious about their worlds and rituals, especially in the context of a patriarchal society. The telling of stories about women has become more prevalent, although we still lack action heroines that aren’t decked out in cleavage-exposing spandex. But what about black girls, specifically? Black filmmakers fight to get black films into Hollywood. Black folks in general are underrepresented in mainstream media, and when they are present, are more often than not distorted by harmful stereotypes. Especially—as I mentioned above, but I’m going to mention it again—especially when it comes to black girls.
In other cases, black and brown girls are cast less stereotypically in their character but are isolated in a sea of white faces: see Dion in Clueless. Or, just as often, black and brown girls are cast as a sort of tragic foil to white protagonists. See Kerry Washington’s character in Save the Last Dance, who knows what it’s like to be poor and a single mom. Or the Latina character in Secret Life of the American Teenager, Adrian, who is slutty and miserable and alone. We were all psyched to see Rue be cast as black in The Hunger Games…until we remembered that Rue dies in the book. Tragic black girls. Even in Beasts of the Southern Wild, where Wallace first stole our hearts, Hushpuppy survives…but she’s not quite whole at the end of it all. Her coming of age is painful and harsh. Violent. She loses her father and, rather than merely gaining her transformation, she loses her childhood. The black girl lives, but she bleeds. There are exceptions to all this, of course. Akeelah and the Bee was fantastic, but far too rare.
So forgive me if I am excited for Annie. The new Annie, in which Quvenzhané Wallis is beaming and jubilant and visible. She goes through tough times—that’s what a coming of age story is all about—but we all know how Annie ends. Annie wins. I’m not into musicals, but please believe I will be dancing in my theater seat come December. As Son of Baldwin said so well, I am here for a film in which black girls are “visible and cherished.” Loved. Present. Winning.