A few days ago when the new trailer for the remake of “Annie” starring Quvenzhané Wallis was released, it didn’t take long for racists to cry foul. It mirrored the recent outcry over another “colorblind” casting decision, that Michael B. Jordan would be playing Johnny Storm, The Human Torch, in the Fantastic Four reboot. Once again in America, the term “post-racial” is rendered useless. This time with showtunes lovers and comics geeks.
If I hear one “black people can dance” crack, I’m swinging.
It’s funny how people are fine with remakes now, but please cast exactly the same types of actors that were in the original. Wouldn’t that somehow be antithetical to a “remake”? More than that, what’s really the problem? Why can’t either of these FICTIONAL characters be cast as African American? If you know the characters, there’s no reason for this resistance.
Annie is an orphan who goes on adventures. That she’s been depicted as having red hair and being white doesn’t mean that it is crucial to her character. What is important to the character of Annie is her optimism, intelligence, and cunning. Annie’s nobody’s chump and the little girl who plays her has to do that with believable moxie.
But, Darien, Johnny Storm is Sue Richard’s BROTHER! They both have blonde hair and blue eyes and it’s been that way for fifty-three years, case CLOSED. No. I say to you, no. Johnny and Sue are siblings, yes, but why MUST they both be white? Comics themselves are often retconned (given retroactive continuity), if Johnny (or God forbid) Sue was adopted by the Storm family and they grew up together, why would their relationship be different? Siblings are siblings.
Since the start of film history audiences have had to endure one white actor after another play Jesus, but one black Human Torch and Annie and the world is going to end? Why?
This casting isn’t just Hollywood being “PC”, or “reverse racism”. This doesn’t mean, as the monumentally ignorant have pointed out, that we can just do a “remake of Roots with white people”. Believe it or not, fantasy and musical entertainment is for everyone and all deserve to see themselves represented on stage, screen, print, or television. The problem with characters like Annie or The Human Torch is that they were created in an era when the only characters allowed to be printed we white, but even in that, they appealed to a diverse group of children, who didn’t care about their races. It is doubtful children will care now either, unless parents tell them to. Who’s to say that if Annie were created now, she wouldn’t be black, or Latina, or Asian? Content creators are aware more than ever that more than just white boys and girls read comics, watch cartoons, and want to be the hero. Disney is on record as actively suggesting to the creator of Doc McStuffins, a break-out character, that the character be a little black girl. Many new comic titles don’t have the hero with the secret identity of “insert white man here”.
For children, part of loving characters is believing they can be them. When you’re a child of color, that changes. There is always some reminder that you can never be the superhero or the princess. When you play with white children you learn it’s more believable that they play the lead and you’re the sidekick or worse… servant. We’re always told we can’t really be Spider-Man or Captain Kirk, we can’t win the prince like Snow White or Rapunzel because… you know. How cruel is it to put a limit on the imagination of a child? How cruel is it to say their dreams are nearly as valid as the dreams of a white child’s?
My mother took me to see Annie on Broadway when I was six-years-old. It was my first musical. A year later when the film came out, I begged to see it. I’ve watched it with my own daughter at least fifty times. I’ve read comic books my whole life. As a child, my favorite title was The Fantastic Four. The mix of sci-fi and super heroics were a perfect fit for my taste and like many young fans, I was a fan of Johnny “Flame On” Storm. My personal favorite series of Fantastic Four were written and drawn by John Byrne and a few years ago, I purchased the entire run on e-bay. I mention this, because they are characters that have meant something to me, especially in my youth.
As a young boy, as much as I adored The Fantastic Four, I wonder how I would have responded to it with the The Human Torch portrayed as African American. I’m sure I would’ve loved it. Growing up, all the superheroes who were black had the word “black” in their names, almost as a reminder of their second-class status even among the super-powered. When you’re called Black Lightning or Black Vulcan, you know where you stand and you don’t exactly inspire allegiance, even among young black readers. Young readers who know when it’s time to play pretend, they won’t be “believable” as Batman and will likely be assigned Black Panther. Well, I suppose one can always choose to be Blade, Storm, Bishop or Luke Cage, but after that, the pickings get fairly slim.
As I watch films with my daughter now, I’m only way too aware of the fact that there a VERY few little black girls at the front of anything. I’m also aware that what she sees and enjoys she wants to become. We believe dreams come true because of the stories we’re exposed to. Annie is the ultimate story of a little girl’s dream come true, and it shouldn’t be a problem if little black girls want to believe the sun will come out for them, too.