Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Evolution of Annie

Little Orphan Annie started as a comic strip in 1924.

It was adapted as a radio show in 1931 and movies in 1932 and 1938. The creator, Harold Gray, died in 1968, but it didn't stop there.

In 1977 Annie hit Broadway. Like her comic counterpart, she's a redhead, and the movie's set in the Depression.
Annie-film.jpg AnnieDVD.jpg
In 1982, the play was adapted into the movie, which spawned a remake in 1999. Like the play, they were both set in the Depression. Now they're coming out with another one.
Staring Quvenzhane Wallis.
As you probably noticed, she's not a redhead. No biggie. My friend Hanna has jet black hair. When she played the role in a community production, the director told her to dye it. She tried. But it ended up this weird shade of maroon. Two or three times throughout the show, the stage lights would hit it just right, and she could pass herself off as a ginger. For the rest of it, though, the lines about Annie being a redhead didn't make sense.
But...Wallis didn't bother to dye her hair, and if she did, no one would be convinced. I assume they've dropped the redhead lines.

The 2014 movie makes other changes. The setting's contemporary and the songs have more of a pop feel to them. Annie's known as a  Depression era girl with a mop of curly red hair. Changing up both of those will strike a nerve with fans, but Annie's race seems to be getting a lot more attention.
Aside from the one at the top of this page, I haven't read any Little Orphan Annie comics. But after wasting time on google researching, it turns out Gray's comics were controversial. One strip included a black character. Not an important character, just a random face-in-the-crowd who happened to be colored with a darker pencil then the others. But in 1944 this was enough to rock the boat.
After a Southern newspaper criticized him, Gray defended himself by saying he didn't support integration and it was "merely a casual gesture toward a very large block of readers". Annie lived in a big city, big cities usually have a black person or two somewhere, so it made sense for Annie to know one. After that some of his black fans wrote thank you letters.
I wonder what he would think of this newest movie.
Hanna is white. Two of her brothers are African-American. When I asked, she called the movie "Will Smith's Christmas present to me" and said "I like the twist." But is casting Annie as a black actress really a twist? At what point is a character a Black Character rather than a Character who happens to be portrayed by a black actress?
Not everyone's as enthusiastic as Hanna. Annie's been a redhead for the past ninety years. Classic Annie fans have taken to the Internet, ranting about how this newest movie is "destroying my childhood." Um, your childhood still exists. You can watch the entire 1999 version on youtube for free.
I have mixed feelings here. I won't pass judgement until I've actually seen the movie. Personally, I think the modern day setting changes more than Annie's hair ever will. Being a billionaire in the Depression was fanciful and ridiculous. Billionaires didn't even exist in the US until 1916. Today there are 492 in the country. And while we certainly have economic problems today, being an orphan was far worse in the Depression. Making Annie black will affect the way viewers see her more than it does the story. But the setting alters the plot itself.
I feel like portraying a character who was originally white with a black actress draws more attention to her race than just making an original movie with a black protagonist. But there's also a large gap between the number of black people in the real world and the number of black characters in film. Movies like this will help bump the numbers. Also, with two well known Annie movies out already, the third movie needs to make some changes to set itself apart.
What do you think? Is Annie's red hair such an integral part of her character that changing it will alter the movie? Is it a non-issue? A sappy attempt at political correctness? Or is it about time they made a movie like this?
If you have thoughts I'd love to hear them.

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