[13 March 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s getting a bit old. As a matter of fact, with the way Messageboard Nation and its far more blunt 140 character cousin, Twitterville react, you’d swear it was Selma in the ‘60s. Racism has gone underground thanks to social media, the anonymous soapbox giving everyone and their bigoted 15 minutes the kind of fame you don’t necessarily want. This week’s subject was the upcoming Annie remake featuring an ethnically diverse cast including Jamie Foxx, Rose Byrne, Cameron Diaz, and in the role of the title orphan (now a more PC-friendly “foster kid”), Beast of the Southern Wild‘s Quvenzhané Wallis. When the trailer premiered last week, it elicited a mixed response from the various opinion-sharing outlets. While many agreed the actual update looked (and sounded, thanks to obvious use of autotune) awful, the biggest stink occurred when the typical intolerant tweets started making the rounds.
Without being specific—or giving further hate-filled speech an additional outlet to flourish—let’s just say that some people in the United States (and abroad, oddly enough), need to crawl out of the Confederate South and stop criticizing 21st century decisions with 19th century ideals. One imagines that most of the people complaining have NO idea who the original Little Orphan Annie is, only know the musical from its one overplayed song—“Tomorrow,” or perhaps, the hip-hop sampled “It’s a Hard Knock Life”—and are only incited because, traditionally, Annie was a white girl with a mop of curly red hair and a dog sidekick named Sandy. As the tale is told, she is eventually adopted by a rich tycoon named Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks, though not without a serious number of problems and pitfalls.
Her adventures became the stuff of pre-Depression legend, eventually turning from a popular comic strip to a hit radio show to a pair of films. When the musical landed on Broadway in 1977, it was viewed as part of a wave of nostalgia that hit when American Graffiti turned from classic film into the lovable sitcom Happy Days and Grease was the word. Running for nearly six years, the material was mangled by Hollywood, the result being the interesting if highly flawed adaptation by none other than John Huston (the 1999 TV movie wasn’t much better). So it seems like a natural to rework the property for a more modern crowd and that means straying from the source while addressing the obvious changes in our society since the days of Prohibition, The Great Gatsy, and little orphan girls.
Naturally, the purists are complaining for many reasons. Daddy Warbucks is now a Mayoral candidate named Benjamin Stacks, while as we said before, Annie is a foster child still stuck in Ms. Hannigan’s home. Her co-conspirators have been dropped (well, reconfigured, really), but we still have a Gal Friday in Rose Byrne and Drake the Butler has seemingly been turned into Nash the driver, played by Oz‘s Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. So there’s some significant changes and a clear desire for diversity, which would make sense, since both Will Smith (who originally was developing the material for his daughter Willow) and Jay-Z are producing. In a slightly surreal touch, there are only white people behind the camera. Will Gluck (Easy A) is directing, and he had a hand in the scripting, along with Aline Brosh McKenna and Oscar winner Emma Thompson?
Obviously, no one of color has a real problem with the people behind the scenes, or if they do, they haven’t got the massive column space that the anti-actor squad has. From epithets to wrongheaded romanticized rationales, the argument maintains that someone like Foxx or Miss Wallis shouldn’t have been cast. They can call on the source all they want, but what’s clear here is that they have a problem with race, and that’s all. It’s really nothing new. Go back to when J.J. Abrams was rebooting Star Trek and read the ridiculous responses to Spock (a half-human alien) having a romance with the African American Uhura. Many quoted mythos, but that was a mere smokescreen. We like to think of ourselves circa 2014 as more enlightened and better educated. Instead, a little girl gets a dream role and a high percentage of the response is heartbreakingly cruel.
Does it really matter if Annie is black? Does it really matter if a character from a comic strip which ended before the parents of those complaining were even born is updated and given a more socially acceptable (and reflective) rewrite? Originally, Shakespeare’s famed Othello was played by white actors in black face, though the character was a Moor (meaning from the Middle East/Africa). Sure, someone could have come along and remade Annie outright, changing nothing or simply resetting the time period. Maybe they’d go so far as to turn Ms. Hannigan into a cultural or social stereotype. That wasn’t the case here. Instead, Smith and Jay-Z saw something here that demanded a update, and that’s what they did . Frankly, fans should be more concerned about the rumors swirling that we will see “new musical material” including… you guessed it, rap and hip-hop.
One imagines the shit storm that will rise up once devotees hear the obviously Auto-tuned material and/or a heaping helping of rhyming street slang. It will be nasty. They can argue all they want to about preserving the past, but the real bygone era they’re supporting is one where blacks couldn’t vote, had to use separate facilities from whites, and could be lynched without process for simply stepping across these often imaginary boundaries. Even if there was/is the remotest possibility that you are speaking out of respect and not intolerance, you sure look like a bigot doing it. It’s the appearance of impropriety—and the given about where it possibly originates—that discounts your desire to be taken at face value. Annie may indeed be black now, but that doesn’t matter. Your reaction, on the other hand, is what’s really important, and what it says about you, and the state of society, is even more telling.