Annie has gone through several adaptations since its creation in 1924 (or 1885, if we take it to the poem by which it is inspired), including two major Hollywood productions and one made-for-television production. Including the 2014 one, which I saw last night. This blog is unusually long, but please hang in there for it! 🙂
Historians of culture use artifacts as a way to examine the hopes and fears of society. Film, for example, is a mirror of society in a variety of ways. By comparing Annie (1982) and Annie (2014), we have a special opportunity to measure societal change, as is the case in all remakes. We also need to keep a special eye on why the remake was released now and why changes were made in places but not in others.
The 1982 version is set in New York, New York, during the Great Depression. (The time/place setting adds special complications because its a representation/historical memory of the Great Depression–this aspect will not be addressed in this blog.) Annie (Aileen Quinn) is a White red-headed girl who lives in an orphanage run by the abusive and drunken Miss Hannigan (Carol Burnett) but hopes her parents will come back for her. Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks (Albert Finney) the billionaire is looking for an orphan to spend some time with in hopes his image will be improved. At first resistant to a female orphan, he quickly warms up to Annie. During the stay, Daddy Warbucks, Grace (Ann Reinking), and Anne get closer and at the end of the movie become a family. Annie finds out that her parents have actually died after Miss Hannigan, her brother, and his girlfriend come up with a plan to be her parents and collect the reward. FDR shows up, and reveals her parents have died. The movie very clearly establishes Warbucks’s wealth, personal ties with FDR and the aristocracy, and the Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy, terminology as coined by bell hooks. This version only has one Black character, Punjab (Geoffrey Holder), who is a mysterious figure and fits the Magical Negro trope very well.
The 2014 version recasts this Great Depression tale as a 2014 tale, also set in New York, New York. Annie (Quvenzhané Wallis – who is the youngest person to ever be nominated for an Academy Award) is Black and “Daddy Warbucks” who becomes “Will Stacks the billionaire” (Jamie Foxx) is also Black and hopes that being with an “orphan” (Annie insists she is not an orphan) will enable him to win the race for mayor. He has his wealth from his cell phone company, not stocks. As in the original film, he doesn’t particularly like people, is distant, and works all the time. Grace (Rose Byrne) has a British/Australian accent instead of a typical US accent. There is no Punjab character. Miss Hannigan (Carmeron Diaz) is still mean, drunk, desires to be on easy street, but has a new soft side that ultimately save the day, unlike FDR in the original.
Both of these incarnations are primarily musicals and use many of the same numbers, but the 1982 version is much more a musical.
This film can mostly be examined by looking at each aspect of the Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy separately (this is the first time I’ve used it in this way) and has some surprising results compared to most films. This article gives a good definition. As we discuss the characters and situations, remember they are not real; they are created to serve specific purposes.
First a definition of Imperialism from the Dictionary of Human Geography:
an unequal human and territorial relationship, usually in the form of an empire, based on ideas of superiority and practices of dominance, and involving the extension of authority and control of one state or people over another
Which is different than Colonialism:
an enduring relationship of domination and mode of dispossession, usually (or at least initially) between an indigenous (or enslaved) majority and a minority of interlopers (colonizers), who are convinced of their own superiority, pursue their own interests, and exercise power through a mixture of coercion, persuasion, and collaboration
Imperialism comes up in the 2014 version in a variety of ways, but primarily with the cell phone company Will Stacks has developed that has spread to several other countries (which is also connected to capitalism) and in his run for mayor of New York.
Part of his success comes from putting cell phone towers in invisible places, including the Statue of Liberty and other public places for private, capitalist interest. Additionally, he secretly has detailed records of all phone calls for twenty-something years, as made clear when we see the control room at least twice. Given the current political situation and the very real new forms of imperialism (imperialism of the mind) and surveillance (the police state) made possible by computers and very real spying being done by Facebook, Google, NSA, and who knows who all, this could be interpreted as a critique since it (our fear) is so readily acknowledged or it could be interpreted as deal with it.
Imperialism of the mind is also present (and perhaps critiqued) given the on-going theme that Will Stacks just needs to adjust his image and take pictures with the homeless, with an orphan, etc., in order to manipulate people to vote for him. At the end of the movie, he resigns the race so Annie will know he loves her without cameras being around.
Even if the film critiques imperialism it does not critique the overall system, as the film ends with Will Stacks still being a rich patriarch and existing and thriving within the Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy.
Before going too far, it is important to recognize that White Supremacy and racism are not fully the same. White Supremacy, very briefly, is the idea that White people are better and superior.
White Supremacy is almost not specifically present in the film at all. The film has two main Black characters, both of which have “their” own hair. (Black hair is highly colonized and “mysterious.” For example, see these clips from Melissa Harris-Perry for more details.) Both also are very rich or become very rich. Annie becomes rich because of capitalism and patriarchy.
White Supremacy specifically creeps up when Will Stacks says we don’t go above x street and when he talks very briefly about his background and growing up.
Indirectly, White Supremacy is present because Will Stacks wouldn’t be rich, given the system as it is, without en masse embracement of White Supremacy. This is where the story, as a representation of Black Men and opportunities they (are not) allowed, becomes problematic because the impossible is possible.
Although not White Supremacist per se, the film also depends on two White Savior figures: Grace and Miss Hannigan (and orphans in her care). The fully-bad to fully-good shift in Miss Hannigan’s character is way too quick and unnatural, as is the sudden romantic relationship between Will Stacks and Grace at the conclusion. Miss Hannigan’s character is also carefully done to show the foster care system and the government as a system are not flawed per se, only individuals (which is dangerous and incorrect).
Annie centers around so-called capitalism (capitalism in practice is very different than capitalism in theory and as promoted, or, as one meme put it, everything we feared that communism would bring has happened under capitalism) or neoliberalism economic ideologies. Both the film as a product given its $65,000,000 budget and aim to make money and the film as a story promote capitalism as a good and ideal system that gives people the best opportunity to
strive for enjoy the American Dream. Really, from a cultural point-of-view, both Annie filmic productions under discussion are work-hard-get-rich narratives at their core. They are stories about the impossible being real and ten times more. They suggest the so-called American Dream is possible and illustrate its rewards–anything you want, your wish is the command. Will Stacks is rich because of his cell phone business, which is made possible by capitalism, which is made possible by imperialism.
This features very prominently, much more so than in the original, especially with the new song The City’s Yours performed while flying around New York in a helicopter. Take a listen. Some of the reoccurring lyrics are:
So take it all, the city’s yours, ask it for more, when you arrange a tour
So take it all, the city’s yours, it’s worth fighting for, it’s all mine, it’s all yours
In New York City
This song embodies messages that capitalism is good and that working hard will yield positive/favorable results and that such is possible in a city with over eight million people. There is also a message that goes uncritiqued that by being rich you own/can own everything. Tomorrow is also a metaphor for the American Dream and capitalism being both good and possible.
The 2014 Annie also has an unusual focus on food that I can’t quite figure out. And food, given our cultural values (or lack of values?) costs a lot of money and the ability to eat requires wealth. Each week on Friday evening Annie would wait outside the restaurant where her parents left her in hopes they would come back, and each week the man (connected to patriarchy) gives her a cannoli. When Grace comes to get Annie, the limousine is full of food she can eat. Annie promptly gives all the food to the other orphans. In one of the attempts to persuade voters to elect Will Stacks, he feeds homeless people. But, he ends up spitting it on a homeless man because after trying the mashed potatoes, he can’t swallow it. (There is a subtle message here that being homeless is bad or indicates an individual failing.) Twice Annie makes food for both of them. Annie attends a big dinner with Will Stacks, Alice, and others which prominently features food. Examples go on. Why is food such a big focus in this story?
Another aspect of capitalism in the Annie narratives relates to the reward for finding Annie’s parents. In this regard, Annie becomes an object, her body and mind a site of conflict. In both cases, money and capitalism are a corrupting power, but ultimately, the Patriarch, makes everything okay because he is a good capitalist. (But, we should remember, in order to become that rich almost inevitably means treating people very poorly, which is also part of the corrupting power of money and capitalism.)
Capitalism is also present given the capital of Will Stacks. He has a large amount of property (materialism)- a sky scraper, a helicopter, computers galore, etc. His money and capital makes him above the law (the waiting period to be Annie’s guardian is instantly waived.)
The only real critique of capitalism comes near the beginning when the four children staying at with Miss Hannigan sing It’s The Hard-knock Life. These lyrics particularly stick out:
Santa Claus we never see
Santa Claus, what’s that?
More than anything, perhaps, Annie is a story about patriarchy. A Man is the leader, controller, holder of wisdom, and holder of wealth. The patriarch does change and grow. At the end of the film, Will Stacks opens a literacy center in honor of Annie, who couldn’t read until he hired a tutor for her.
Some concluding thoughts and other random comments:
All of the Black people in Annie have something “wrong” with them. Annie is an orphan, Isabella is an orphan (Eden Duncan-Smith), Will Stacks doesn’t like people and manipulates people to make money, dozens and dozens of Black Women and Black Men “audition” to be Annie’s parents in order to collect money, and Will Stacks’s driver/body guard, Nash (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) goes along with everything.
But, something is also wrong with all of the other characters. Grace doesn’t have any friends and is a bit narcissistic, Guy (Bobby Cannavale) is Will Stacks’s assistant who “sells” Annie, Lou (David Zayas) changes dates on milk and juice to make more money (connected to capitalism and the focus on food), the social services inspector (Mike Birbiglia) is completely ignorant, Mrs. Kovacevic (Stephanie Kurtzuba) doesn’t like her government job (why, oh why, does this version spend so much time at the government office and with government officials?) and steals things from other (rich) people, and Miss Hannigan needs no further description. All of the other characters except the unnamed man (Ray Iannicelli) who gives Annie a cannoli each week.
I am very pleased that a major Hollywood film has two prominent performers in leading roles. I am also pleased that there is now a representation filmicly of a very rich and powerful Black Man. While I have problems with how he is represented as having acquired this wealth, he did it the “American way,” by cheating and lying. Enter my problems: that it is kind of a negative portrayal of a Black Man. There is also the question, especially given that at least 1/3 of all Black Men are in the Criminal Justice System (and sadly, frequently there is no justice), of opportunity vs. insulting. A Black Man might seen this film and feel insulted knowing that such would be impossible, given cultural mores in the United States.
I am also very interested in why Annie is Black. What prompted this and why? Why did the Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy allow this? and/or think this would make money? Are they capitalizing on the success of President Obama?
This film is unique in that there is no mammy figure – just as there was no mammy figure in The Butler. It is also a step removed from other Black Movies – it wasn’t that serious, wasn’t humorous, was just a regular movie, so to speak. There was no church scene. In fact, the only mention of God–“God has a path for us all”–occurs will Will Stacks mistakes Miss Hannigan for a thief/prostitute.
No matter what, the story told in this Annie does not speak to the Black experience. The Black characters could have easily been White characters with nothing changed at all. Not saying this is good or bad, just stating that these are the representations. The film also represents police in a very positive way–they dance with Annie and Will Stacks at the end. This will certainly strike many as uncomfortable, especially given the recent light given to police brutality.
The focus on what is frequently called the best aspect of democracy–the ability to run for office and by extension voting–is also interesting and odd, especially given how many Black Men and Women do not have the right to vote due to efforts by Conservative/Tea Party politicians.
As far as the acting–there were no outstanding performances, except from Lou and in some parts of some of the musical numbers. This will not be a film remembered or praised or one that will win numerous awards. In many places, it was too forced. Too much, to give a parallel, like what would happen if someone else gave one of my lectures based on my notes verbatim to their own class. Characters change and develop too quick and too slow, and the musical parts are not the story, as they are in the original movie of Annie.
Twitter also plays a big part in this film and is on of the most different parts of this Annie compared to the 1982 version. Twitter is used to save Annie at the end, it is also used to capitalize on Annie, as Guy created “Annie’s” twitter account without her consent or knowledge and as Guy controlled it.
During the previews, the trailer for Minions played. We should specifically recognize this was approved to play with Annie. Minions appears to be racist, sexist, anti-intellectual, anti-history, etc and pro-authority, pro-Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy.
All in all, I did enjoy Annie. I felt myself getting emotionally involved a number of times. I think this film would be very appropriate for children and adults, especially if issues like those mentioned above are discussed. This film is better than many when it comes to racialized issues and representations.
(Added 12/31/14: Be sure to also check out this good article from The Atlantic: “Why a Black Annie Is So Significant.“)