Directed by Will Gluck
Starring Jamie Foxx, Quvenzhane Wallis, Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale, Cameron Diaz
Based on Annie by Thomas Meehan & Little Orphan Annie by Harold Gray
Screenplay by Will Gluck, Aline Brosh McKenna & Emma Thompson
PG, 118 Minutes
Annie is still, at its heart, the same as it was in 1982: an adorable, good-hearted child with a faithful heart and an optimistic spirit, who is stuck in dire circumstances beyond her control, ends up in a place of privilege and opens the hearts of the cynical adults around her.
People decrying the racelift the movie has been given may not understand that, but that’s thanks to their problem with Quvenzhane Wallis playing the title character. Their Annie is a red-haired white girl. Their Annie came from nothing and ended up in the lap of luxury, a place of privilege most of us can only dream about. Their rage at this Annie being black is, at its darkest, nastiest, peeled-open truth, white people freaking out that a black child could ever deserve or get that same rags-to-riches story. That’s the filthy underbelly of the already-offensive tweets and reviews calling her N-word Annie.
Will Gluck understands this. Jay-Z, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, and the production team, understand this. They understand why it’s vitally important to make an update with a Black Annie: they came from poor backgrounds themselves, and now live in the world of the most privileged. They experience the same hate and sneering disdain from White America, being Black people rich enough to do whatever they want unimpeded, and be happy doing it. So the movie is informed by this knowledge, and by those set against it.
Annie of 2014 is not just an adorable sweet-cheeked, bright-eyed, big-haired poppet. She is a hustler. For those unfamiliar, that’s a term used in the poor parts of town for people doing whatever they need in order to get by, and keep on keeping on, in a world that sees them as ignorable, disgusting, and disposable. The first we see of Quvenzhane Wallis in the role is her giving an essay on a president at school. Instead of writing it down, she gives a presentation out of her head and turns it into a spoken word, audience participation, performance piece. She puts FDR’s New Deal in simple terms that kids can understand, and in getting the kids to take part in her explanation, makes it fun, so they will get it and remember it. The teacher doesn’t seem to grasp it, but the kids are visually into it. The whole opening sequence of the film is about how she hustles, and why she hustles: she wants to get back to the Italian restaurant where her parents left her with a note, saying they’d come back, and wait for them. She even hustles a bucket from kindly bodega owner Lou, so that she can reach the fire escape to sneak into her foster mother Hannigan’s apartment late, and schmoozes Hannigan (Cameron Diaz) herself with compliments to avoid punishment.
Annie’s first thoughts once Stacks (Jamie Foxx) enters her life, are to share with her friends every bit of largesse shown to her. He gives her candy, and she passes the majority of it onto the other foster girls. He gives her a phone and she brings them Stacks phones (he’s a technology mogul) of their own. She invites them to a movie premiere and party. They’re her family and when she gets a step up, she does not forget them.
The movie also injects a thread of painful reality into Annie’s fantasy. Despite her hustle, her clever performance at school, her playing off her cuteness in Social Services, and her catching on quick that Stacks just wants her for photo ops, Annie can’t read. The system has not only failed her by way of finding her a family, they’ve failed in educating her. Any opportunities she does get, she might not see, let alone be able to use them.
Stacks of 2014 is not a man who’s made his money from war. He’s a rags-to-riches story himself. He’s from a poor part of the city that he tries to put behind him, but he has buried his heart to do it. He actively tries to forget where he came from, and is disgusted by the people who live there, to the point where he doesn’t just slather hand sanitizer on his hands: he squirts it into his mouth from having had to talk closely to the poor and downtrodden of the city. Stacks’ transformation means that the two main characters, Annie and Stacks, function as the start and climax of the production team’s own stories. Many of the complaints I’m seeing from other critics about the “cynicism” in Annie, stem from how this portrayal of Stacks shines a light on how the rich (new and old) in the real world often treat the poor.
While the plot of the movie follows the same cynicism-becomes-idealism arc of the original Annie movie and play — Annie gets to Hannigan and Stacks, opening their hearts; the bad guys want to profit off of Annie, at Annie’s expense — the movie never forgets its Annie is a black girl. It doesn’t shy away from showing how people react to her and other poor people in the city. Stacks has so distanced himself from his roots that he has to be reminded not to use insulting terms for the homeless and underprivileged of the city. The social services woman doesn’t even want to touch the money Annie has touched — a subtle but powerful visual that implies she thinks Annie is dirty, or whatever she did to get the money was. This isn’t just cynicism. Studies have shown that the further up the ladder someone climbs, socially and financially, the less empathy and respect they have for people lower down.
Even Hannigan, the foster mother played by Cameron Diaz, portrayed unkindly for laughs, contributes something here. She tells anyone who will listen that she was almost a star, performing with two of the biggest acts of the 90s. But now, those opportunities lost, she wallows in alcoholic nostalgia and bitterness over her current situation. How could she, a pretty, white woman, possibly have sunk so low as to live in Harlem and to need foster kids at $157 a week each to stay afloat?
Hannigan and the people of Annie’s world are balanced by those in Stacks’ new world. Guy (Cannavale) is a wheeler-dealer public relations guy, who has never wanted for anything and doesn’t know what it’s like to struggle. He doesn’t understand compassion or care about it, as evinced by his disdainful reaction to Stacks’ philanthropic rival in the mayoral race. Everything he says and does is calculated to advantage Stacks, with the long view that it will advantage Guy in the end. Grace (Byrne) grew up with the lap of luxury too, but never had friends, and compensated by imagining them. Money isn’t everything, and you can’t let a big bank account stand in for a heart. Money doesn’t cure loneliness.
Guy personifies the worst of the wealth-without-compassion aspect of the film: it’s his idea to have Stacks invite Annie for lunch, and that grows into his plan to boost Stacks’s political fortunes, by having him find Annie’s “real parents,” hired performers who will dump her after Stacks has won. While that plan makes his candidate look good for voters, it treats an innocent child like an accessory rather than a human being with feelings. It doesn’t occur to him that it’s a terrible, cruel thing to do to a little girl who’s been searching desperately for her parents for six years. Worse, he’s willing to share a chunk of his expected bonus with Hannigan to get her on board, but never considers that he’s condemning a little girl to a life of poverty or worse. Every film needs a villain and this makes him the villain, but he seems genuinely clueless about it, even to the point of making fun of the audience’s liberal guilt. He doesn’t even seem aware that his plan to reunite Annie with her “real parents” and then have the fakes dump her means treating her like she isn’t human — dehumanization is an experience many nonwhite people can relate to, and the film pulls no punches here. It’s the same dehumanizing scam pulled by Rooster in the 1982 version of Annie, but in 2014, Guy is white and Annie is black. In the previous film, everyone is white — how could anyone do such a thing to one of their own?
All that aside, the movie is a visual treat. I rarely take things like cinematography into consideration unless they enhance the story, and Michael Grady did an excellent job here. The raggedy, poor parts of Annie’s world look real, worn, weathered, and vandalized by the kids. The shining, sparkly parts of Stacks’ world are practically fantasy.
Oscar-Nominated Quvenzhane Wallis is a radiantly beautiful child, and Grady makes a point of choosing shots that light her from above so that the sunlight shines through her beautiful, sizeable puff of unprocessed, natural hair. Though as a nod to the previous Annie and a joke for the white audiences, she gets the line “my hair is gigantic!” for laughs. Gluck and Grady show the big and expensive parts of New York from a distance, from Annie’s perspective, but get in close once she begins to show Stacks how she views the city around them. Gluck and Grady let her dazzling talent light up the scenes where the sun isn’t available, and she does it naturally.
The character work is beautiful as well. Stacks is a big old cynic, but that is a facade that begins cracking within moments of being alone with Annie, who sees right through him. Her summation of him to her foster sister is “I think he is [nice]. He just doesn’t know it yet. ” She sets out to bring that out of him, and succeeds. Stacks begins as a classist, distant, cynic. But even just meeting Annie starts him on the journey to change: he doesn’t even stop to think when Annie falls in front of the van, and his immediate reaction after determining she’s okay is to demand why she put herself in danger in the first place. As Annie’s humble beginnings remind him of his own, he begins to warm to her. We see his growth as a person in him coming away from being stiff and fake, and turning toward a genuine display of emotion and compassion for Annie and others.
Hannigan is the worst and most problematic element that isn’t integral to Annie’s arc. She is an obvious alcoholic, but the tragedy of that is played for laughs. It’s not her movie, so no one offers her help, nor questions whether an obvious alcoholic is a fit guardian for children. The foster girls make fun of her for her addiction. Guy leverages it to get her on his side. It’s also implied that she has a drug abuse problem; Annie has no problem conniving to expose it for her own advantage early in the film, which provokes Hannigan to drop her as a foster in retaliation. Hannigan is also a cynical, fortune hunter. Lou, the bodega owner, likes Hannigan genuinely, but he’s too penny-ante for her, so she tries to drive him off in favor of the more moneyed men who enter her life. This too is played for laughs, as she drunkenly, creepily vamps for the Social Services inspector and Guy’s attention, winking expansively at them by way of flirting. Her attempt at macking on Stacks has him react with revulsion to what he thinks is a sex worker. The racism and classism are necessary and integral to the story, but Hannigan’s portrayal is more troubling.
Lou, by the way, is not a “nice guy.” He gives sincere if awkward compliments, gifts, but from a distance — either through Annie or from the street below while Hannigan stands on the fire escape. He never touches Hannigan when she gives indication she’d rather not be. Lou also gets one of the film’s best lines — calling Stacks out playfully for being surprised that a poor humble bodega owner knows anything about fancy, expensive helicopters.
Stacks is written in a way that subverts some of the old tropes about what a man is; particularly what a Black man is. He is obviously off balance when Grace asks him to help fix Annie’s bow for her dress. When Annie’s plight touches him and brings him to tears, he starts off uncomfortable with admitting it, but eventually realizes there’s nothing wrong with a man showing tears. The climax worried me for a bit: if Stacks uses his cellphone network to track the kidnapped Annie, it will destroy his chances for mayor (and support the black people=criminals narrative so many people embrace). But the foster kids work around this by using Twitter: kidnapped Annie gets the attention of kids all over the city, and they post her photo to Twitter with location tags.
Do the women and girls of Annie have agency? Annie definitely does. She navigates the world on her own terms, and refuses to accept things she considers wrong. She doesn’t sit still for adults or let them push her around. She convinces adults to let her earn her keep when she can (even if that means a little bit of underhanded hustling like changing the expiration dates on the milk and juice in Lou’s bodega). Grace, meanwhile, has a job and isn’t just a trophy wife in waiting. Hannigan is again the bad example, though, taking advantage of children, while mourning her nonexistent stardom and seeking to marry into money. But she grows as a character. The film also passes the Bechdel test. Hannigan talks to the foster girls about her failed stardom, and Grace and Annie discuss Grace’s lonely childhood.
The movie is less of a full musical than its predecessor. Story is much more important here, so the songs are shortened or relegated to background music, except when there are really significant moments — and then they’re hip-hop showpieces. The actual performances by the main characters end up a little wobbly in places as a result. Foxx isn’t the strongest singer, but he does well. Byrne and Diaz seem in their element. Cannavale shows surprising musical chops when he gets to show it off in “Easy Street.” Wallis herself has a beautiful, ethereal little voice that strikes right to the heart — but honestly could’ve used more time with a voice coach. There’s a little auto-tuning in some of the newer songs, like “The City is Yours”, but it is subtle enough not to trigger my “nails on the blackboard” reaction to its presence.
From a representation standpoint I can’t say enough about this movie. Little black girls will see themselves in Annie, right down to the disgusted eyerolls she gives when she thinks adults are treating her like she’s stupid. White children will see Annie, other black kids, and Latin children interacting with white children, and all of them having fun together and realize that racism is an adult hangup that creates artificial separation.
A common complaint I see about media set in New York is also addressed here: the city is diverse. Unlike many productions taking place in New York, it’s not all white except for the poor. There are white people amongst the homeless. The Social Services worker is Russian. There are Asians and Latinos in the crowd scenes. There are natural hairstyles amongst the black tie formal at the Guggenheim, and amongst the suit-and-tie people working for Stacks at his cell phone company.
Concerned parents need not be. The worst word used in the film is a euphemism, used when Stacks describes Sandy’s grooming habits. There’s no potty humor.
4.5 stars out of five. That half star stays gone due to the problematic elements built around Hannigan. If you’re subtracting any stars because it’s not a perfect clone of the previous versions, you’re missing the point. If you want to subtract any stars for Annie being black, just stay home. You’re not evolved enough for this movie.