I was excited to take my daughters to see Annie starring 11-year-old African American actress Quvenzhané Wallis this past weekend. Just months ago, my own 4-year-old daughter Akeela said to my wife and me: "Brown skin isn't beautiful."
She made clear her preference for long, straight, golden Rapunzel-like hair. I have no doubt that seeing Quvenzhané Wallis as Annie was powerful for her, a brown-skinned, curly-haired African American and Indian American child. After the movie, she began chastising her younger sister for copying the self-disparaging things she herself said before.
So as a dad, I appreciate producers Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith and Jay-Z for making this movie.
Unfortunately though, the movie's total silence on how racism and inequality creates the circumstances faced by the Annies of the world left me disappointed. Instead of glamorizing the lifestyles of the rich and famous and tacitly accepting the idea that if we just try hard enough we can all make it, I found myself wishing that the movie had explored what a new New Deal could look like.
Much of the commentary about the new Annie has swirled around the choice to cast Quvenzhané Wallis. But historically, the biggest controversy in adaptations of Annie centered on the New Deal and whether wealth should be more equitably distributed.
The original Little Orphan Annie comic strip was anti-New Deal. Daddy Warbucks actually dies from a mysterious "disease" when Franklin D. Roosevelt is nominated for a fourth term as president. (After FDR's death, Warbucks is resurrected.) The 70's musical and 80's film, however, veered in the opposite direction. It included an entire song dedicated to singing the praises of the New Deal. The song goes, "I know the Depression's depressing, the carols are stilled, the stores aren't filled....But we'll get a New Deal for Christmas this year."
In the current version, the movie starts with a classroom presentation by Annie on FDR and the New Deal. Annie's assessment is glowing and accurate. She says the New Deal helped put people back to work and brought more wealth to the top earners. But her lesson leaves out the fact that farm workers and domestic workers, predominantly black men and women at the time, were excluded from New Deal worker protections. This cemented racially inequality via federal government policy.
Look, I get it. It's a kids' movie not a history lesson. But I think producers like Jay-Z really understand the challenges that the Annies of the world face. Jay-Z is likely familiar with statistics that show that black youth are more likely to be pushed out of school and to end up in the juvenile justice system for engaging in the same behaviors as their white counterparts. Black youth are more likely to be placed in foster care. They are in the streets protesting and engaging in civil disobedience just to affirm that black lives matter.
Jay-Z knows this. He helped orchestrate an "I Can't Breathe" demonstration against the police killing of Eric Garner at the Brooklyn Nets game. He supported Proposition 47, a California ballot initiative that aims to move money from prisons to schools. So why not include a song for schools not jails and a new New Deal in this version of Annie?
It's a hard knock life for poor black and brown youth and their parents not because they are not willing to work hard, but because of the legacy of discrimination embedded in the structure of past federal government policies such as the New Deal. It left the domestic workers who take care of other people's children too often unable to afford to care for their own. Today, thousands of Annies languish in the child welfare system today not because their parents don't care but because they are poor.
It might be a lot to ask of a musical meant for kids, but what I was hoping to see on screen was a vision for a society where we provide support to people instead of punishment. The film missed an important opportunity by glossing over the achievements of FDR's New Deal without illustrating the need to create policies that promote fairness and equality by not leaving anyone behind.
Having a black Annie on screen is important, but what all the real Annies out there and their parents deserve is a film that explores what a 21st century New Deal could look like, with racial justice structured in.