Why a Black Annie Is So Significant

It's still rare for a mass-market movie to put a person of color in the lead role, and it's increasingly clear that Hollywood's history of exclusion hurts everyone.

Columbia Pictures

"It's the hard knock life for us ... 'Stead of kisses/We get kicked!

As millions of moviegoers sit down in front of the same few studio films playing at their local theater over the holidays, the handful of Hollywood creators behind those projects will have that still-rare power: the undivided attention of much of the country. In communities of all kinds, audiences young and old, of various backgrounds, will gather to consume the artistic vision of a select few people.

In this way, a single film, whether it’s transporting millions to different worlds, pushing them to explore the depths of their own feelings, or imagining the assassination of a world leader, can still have an enormous influence on culture. The ability to keep our attention in a dark theater for two hours or so means films can teach people things, often without them knowing.

Perhaps most exciting is film's ability to teach empathy—by placing audiences so deeply in the shoes of another. Researchers have suggested that “empathy is inherent in the nature of narrative cinema.” Whether via the protagonist or the director, watching a movie is to see the world through someone else’s eyes.

Most of the time, those eyes belong to white men (who are straight and able-bodied). And, in most of their stories, they ask their audiences to feel that compassion for people who look just like them.

Which raises the question: Could decades of consuming Hollywood blockbusters in this way, focused on white men, have affected the actual experience of empathy? Could they have limited our ideas of who is most loving, and who is most deserving of love?

Within this context of cinematic exclusion, amid the holiday movie season and continued chants of "Black Lives Matter" in the streets, comes Will Gluck’s Annie, starring the Oscar-nominated Quvenzhané Wallis. Even more so than Ava Duvernay’s historic Selma, which may end up being the first film directed by a black woman to win an Oscar, or last year’s multiple Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave, Annie is a potential game changer.

Because here we have a major Hollywood film, widely marketed, asking us to do the rarest of things for movies of its kind: feel empathy for a black girl.

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One of 2014’s most successful films has been Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, a story about the power of love to cross time and space. Nolan himself is one of the most powerful men in all of Hollywood. He has both commercial and critical success—box office records and Oscar nominations—and the ability to make films about pretty much anything he wants (with budgets of pretty much any size).

He has, like nearly every other director of his stature, chosen to exclusively make movies about those who look like him. He has occasionally cast men of color in significant roles—from Ken Watanabe in Inception to David Oyelowo in his latest—but never as a lead. And in a total of nine films (as well as the two he helped produce), over the course of more than 15 years, Nolan has never once given a major role of any kind to a woman of color. Only two women of color, as named characters, have ever even spoken a line in his movies ("Jessica" in Batman Begins and "Anna Ramirez" in The Dark Knight), and their words have represented about two percent of everything Nolan has put on screen.

When you have the kind of power that Nolan has, even the accidental omission of women of color becomes a significant choice. Because there probably isn’t any woman working today who has access to the budgets that Nolan (or Ridley Scott, the now infamous director of the whitewashing Exodus: Gods and Kings) can get greenlit with relative ease. His ability to increase empathy through film is greater than most others.

People often think of the glacial pace of change in Hollywood as the result of entrenched systemic issues of access—that there is no pipeline for women or people of color—and that the solution is to support independent film and the projects being made by those excluded by the system. Yet, it’s important to also consider just how much power individual white men in Hollywood have to accelerate change, and in a very practical sense, the careers of women of color.

If Zoe Saldana hadn’t won roles in James Cameron’s Avatar and J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek in 2009, for instance, she may have never been subsequently cast in this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Though she may still face issues of typecasting, Saldana has now appeared in three of the most-seen movies of the past decade.

Yet beyond the immediate impact inclusive casting has on individual careers, there is the even greater effect the choice to include or exclude women of color in major films has on collective perceptions of who matters, and who does not.

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Movies can change culture and shift behavior. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, the first summer blockbuster, nearly single-handedly increased the fear of great white sharks in the United States after its release in 1975, as well as the study and illegal hunting of those animals in the decades following. Moreover, a 2013 study found that showing medical students scenes from movies like ...First Do No Harm (1997), in which Meryl Streep plays a woman struggling to find proper care for her son, “helped build and maintain their empathy” for patients.

Perhaps most tellingly, a 2008 study, by Bjarne M. Holmes and Kimberly R. Johnson, found that audiences often look to romantic relationships on screen for insight into "how they themselves could behave in their own relationships.” A 2014 University of Michigan study also found that “romantic ideals that people hold often correlate with the types of media messages they are exposed to.”

So beyond the grand romantic gestures and love-at-first-sight storylines, what do we grow up thinking love looks like in this country? If happily-ever-after movies like The Notebook might have the power to distort the expectations people have of their own relationships, couldn’t years of watching mostly white people receiving compassion teach us that compassion is mostly for white people?

In none of the top 25 romantic dramas of all-time, according to Box Office Mojo, is the main protagonist a woman of color. In only one (The Bodyguard) is the love interest a woman of color. In none of the top 200 movies overall, across all genres—many of which have a central romantic storyline—is the primary protagonist, in whose shoes we step, a woman or girl of color.

Movies like Interstellar, where love—familial, in this case—can cross time and space, but doesn't quite reach black women, are far more common. If it were an isolated instance, or if Nolan's case were exceptional, it might be negligible.

Yet when you look at over 100 years of Hollywood history and see so few examples of love given to people of color—particularly women—it does become the problem of all our current directors and creators.

Whether or not Annie, which is directed by Will Gluck, a white man, manages to become a massive hit (most critics aren’t very hopeful), Hollywood will not change without the buy-in (or exit) of those currently in power.

Yet, what white men in Hollywood and their critics alike have too often overlooked, is that forgetting the existence of most of the world isn’t just harmful, but also an artistic oversight—a limitation. Meaning, whether a director like Christopher Nolan is intentionally or unintentionally leaving out women of color in the expansive environments he has imagined, his career is lacking in a particular, essential kind of cinematic vision: empathy.

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It would be disingenuous to imply that people of color can’t or don’t enjoy these Hollywood films about white people. In fact, according to the MPAA, 46 percent of all ticket buyers in 2013 were people of color. And most of the films they went to see starred white people.

Yet that’s part of the beauty of cinema. Audiences can see themselves on screen, whether it’s in the face of someone familiar, or in the face of someone entirely different.

A result of growing up watching films where the audience’s allegiances are almost always with white men, is that most viewers are fundamentally better trained to empathize with them. People of color enter films expecting to do the work of imagining themselves as white, just as women enter assuming they will be in the shoes of men. This is done both consciously, in the sense that they typically know who is starring in a given film ahead of time, but also subconsciously, in the way that they become accustomed to the white straight male gaze behind the camera. This is the status quo in the industry.

But this kind of empathy is only one side of the equation, or one possibility. Not just for those who are left off screen, but also the white men and boys who continue to see only themselves centered.

Researchers have postulated that there are multiple kinds of empathy that films can elicit, but that “empathic concern”—the kind we feel when identifying with those who are different—is the most likely to lead to frequent “helping behaviors.”

In other words, when films force us to see things from another’s perspective, they’re more likely to cause us to do something nice for others. So while transgender women of color may be especially unlikely to experience self-confidence, empowerment, and love through a film, white straight able-bodied men in Hollywood are also suffocating their own ability to feel “empathic concern” for non-white others. They are not fully experiencing love.

Everyone has been limited, but it’s again girls of color, growing up with such little representation, who suffer most.

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In Amma Assante’s Belle, released earlier this year, the protagonist, Dido Elizabeth Belle (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw), is the black niece of the wealthy white Lord Chief Justice of England in the late 1700s (her father was Captain John Lindsey, and her mother was a slave named Maria Belle). The film basically begins and ends with Dido staring at two very different paintings in her uncle’s house, where she is raised. The first is one in which there are two black children relegated to the sides, in clearly subservient positions. The latter is one in which she literally sees herself—painted alongside her white cousin—in a position of power and beauty.

The experience is transformative for Dido, not only because she can now see herself there, but because she knows that others can see her there as well—inside a beautiful painting. Growing up in high society, where she has been cared for but always excluded, and now knowing what she does about the realities of slavery in the outside world, having studied the details of the Zong massacre, Dido understands the significance of her portrait hanging in the judge’s hallway as an expression of love from her uncle, but also something bigger than herself.

Assante’s Belle is based on a true story, and though our dominant form of art has changed, nearly 250 years after Johann Zoffany completed that portrait of Dido for the Lord Chief Justice, black women and girls are still a rare sight within our most widely consumed, and highly praised works of art.

As a result, Mbatha-Raw, here and in Beyond the Lights, another film about love centered on people of color, remains mostly unknown in mainstream culture. But the well-reviewed Lights, where she plays Noni, an up-and-coming pop star, is not only a critique of the lack of representation for women of color in the media, but also the manner in which they are represented when seen at all.

They are not only sidelined, but too often placed in stereotypical or demeaning roles. And these dual forms of cinematic negation—invisibility or dehumanization—can lead to isolation and a lack of self-love (which is initially the case for Noni).

Thus to see Mbatha-Raw empowered and in love, in two separate movies this year, was one of the joys of cinema in 2014. Unfortunately, neither Belle nor Beyond the Lights were widely seen or ever given the chance to be major hits (though many people will no doubt discover them on-demand).

But Annie is different. It will open on more than 3,000 screens across the country, making it the widest opening of the year for a film centered on the life of a woman or girl of color (Beyond the Lights, by comparison, played on fewer than 1,800 screens throughout this year). With superstars like Jamie Foxx and Cameron Diaz beside her, the film’s poster itself—hanging in hundreds of theaters today from St. Louis to New York—powerfully frames Wallis as the center of attention and the focus of our empathy. It’s not quite Titanic (meaning, we’ve still yet to see a blockbuster romantic film starring an adult black woman), and the film may still tank, but it is significant nonetheless.

Will the girls and boys of color who see Annie on the big screen in the coming weeks be more likely to believe that they indeed matter in this country? Will they grow up more likely to know that they are loved, and capable of loving? That may be an overly hopeful idea, but it's a welcome development whenever Hollywood offers some hope for tomorrow.