“The sun will come out tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow, there’ll be sun.”
The words and the tune are familiar, but the decidedly hip-hop twist belies a completely different story: that of the orphan Annie, who, in 2014, just happens to be black.
On Wednesday the world was given a sneak peek at the new Annie—starring Oscar-nominated child star Quvenzhané Wallis and the ever talented Jamie Foxx—as the first trailer hit the Internet. The 2:30-minute clip shows a modern spin on the beloved tale of the mistreated orphan who went on to be adopted by one of the world’s richest men. Featured are the streets of Harlem and a mayoral campaign, as well as revamped versions of the classic songs.
“What will tomorrow bring?” The trailer asks its audience.
What would be truly remarkable and truly a sign of that “tomorrow”—to this writer, at least—is if a black Annie didn’t cause a stir within social media. And if a black Annie (or an Annie of any race) was just normal enough that no one even batted an eyelash about the details.
But predictably, Quvenzhané’s decided lack of red in her Afro and obvious blackness is causing a stir in social media.
Of course, this isn’t the first time the fictional purists have come out to complain. Most recently Michael B. Jordan has been the subject of similar scrutiny and racial comments for his casting as Johnny Storm (aka the Human Torch) in the upcoming Fantastic Four remake. Some of the harshest critics have claimed that he would ruin the franchise and that it’s unrealistic to have a black man playing the boisterous hotshot.
Yet let’s be clear about this: This isn’t people being upset because a black man was cast to play John F. Kennedy. People are upset that a black man has been cast to play a sci-fi character whose superpower is that he can essentially engulf his body in incomprehensibly hot flames and not get burned.
Also to be noted is that in neither Annie’s nor Johnny Storm’s case is their skin or hair color an essential part of their character. Sure, the world came to know and love the original Annie’s vibrant, red curls, but they weren’t essential to the development of the plot as a whole.
The original Johnny Storm had blond hair, but in the 2005 remake, when the character was played by Chris Evans, his hair was more of a sandy brown. And yet no one seemed put off by that. One could argue that a defining part of Harry Potter’s character was his “bottle green” eyes that made him look so much like his mother, and yet in the movies fans were swift to forgive Daniel Radcliffe, who couldn’t wear contacts.
To get past what some may brush off as mere details and get straight to the melanin factor, let’s talk about everyone’s favorite dystopian trilogy, The Hunger Games. Protagonist Katniss Everdeen was specifically described in the book as having “olive skin.” Actress Jennifer Lawrence, who eventually got the role, has a lot of things going for her, but olive skin is not one of them. And yet somehow that was open to interpretation.
Meanwhile, a young black actor actually played a black character, Rue, in The Hunger Games. She was described in the book as having dark skin, yet fans were appalled at this casting. The obvious misreading of the author’s description of “dark-brown skin” is one thing, but others got downright nasty, saying they weren’t as sad about her death and that having a black actress play the black character “ruined the movie,” and she wasn’t the “innocent blonde girl” you would have pictured.
Let’s flip the script and look at the hypocrisy of some of these fans.
Take the case pf Disney’s The Lone Ranger. Selected to play Tonto, white guy Johnny Depp did lay claim to Indian heritage (Cherokee, he said, “or maybe Creek”) but drew backlash and skepticism from some in the American Indian community. His fans did not get what all the fuss was about, especially given his claim, but the inescapable fact is that Tonto’s race was important to the development of this story; it was significant. That, and surely there were some Native American actors who could have taken the role.
So then the question truly comes down to, when does authenticity matter and when does it not? Why does it seem that authenticity becomes an issue only when a person of color is involved? What if we scrutinized Depp and Lawrence as much as we do Quvenzhané and Jordan?
There are numerous examples (check out one pretty good rundown from Policy Mic) in which Hollywood has successfully whitewashed characters with nary a peep. However, suggest a black actor for a white role, and suddenly there’s a claim that everything is “not the same” and it is “ruined.”
The simple fact is that these stories are all fiction, figments of the writer’s imagination, with endless possibilities, and those include race.
Is it really that hard to imagine a cheeky, lovable black orphan in Harlem? Is it that hard to imagine the show-off hedonist who can light himself on fire as a black man? Is it that hard to imagine a black kid who likes science and photography—and then happens to be bitten by a radioactive spider (lest we forget the backlash that rapper Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, got when some fans were pushing for him to become the Amazing Spider-Man)?
Glover himself talked about the incident, which infuriated him, in an interview, adding, “It’s f—king 2011, and you don’t think there’s a black kid who lives with his aunt in Queens? Who likes science?”
Think carefully before you answer.
Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.