Annie, the comic strip turned musical franchise about a downtrodden orphan girl who finds fortune at the hands of a billionaire seeking to boost his image, is a story that has been told and retold several times both at the theatre and on the big screen.
This week, the trailer for yet another Annie remake, an updated version set in contemporary New York, was released, much to the dismay of several internet warriors.
Why are these apparently die-hard Annie fans dismayed, or worse still, angry? Because the 2014 version of Annie stars Oscar-nominated Quvenzhané Wallis, a 10-year-old black actress, who rose to fame in 2012 after starring in Behn Zeitlin’s ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’. And Annie, according to these people, cannot and should not be black.
While on the one hand, the sentimentality is somewhat understandable, as Annie has conventionally been a red head, on the other, the racism the young Quvenzhané has been subjected to is astonishing and, taking into account the nature of the film, which is more of an updated adaptation than a ‘version’ (the male lead played by Jamie Fox doesn’t even have the same name as in the original), is completely unprecedented.
History is replete with non-white characters and even non-white historical figures that have been portrayed by white actors. Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra in 1963 is a prime example of this. When one adds to this the fact that, in 1965, Laurence Olivier – a blonde white man – played Othello, whose blackness is central to the plot of the film, one must conclude that the whole ‘Annie can’t be black; stop trying to steal our characters’ thing is a gross overreaction.
Besides, it is Annie’s orphan status and fighting spirit; her ability to overcome her circumstances, rather than her red hair and pale skin that are her most important ‘attributes. And this exactly what the new film, produced by Will Smith, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Jay Z, is trying to capture.