How 2014's Annie Failed at Depicting Black Women as Positive Mother Figures

by Kwanzaa Imani

When the Annie remake was announced in 2011—back when Willow Smith was set to star and no one knew much of anything else except who was producing—I was the person who ran through the house excitedly announcing, “There’s going to be Black Annie!” until my entire family was aware of its impending existence. So, of course, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see the movie in theaters when it was released this past December. Quvenzhané Wallis was excellent in her starring role as Annie. When the movie ended, I left the theatre singing “It’s a Hard Knock Life” with my little brother. I tried to share this excitement with my mother, but she was quick to shut down her interest in financially supporting the film due to the castings of Grace and Ms. Hannigan alone. This took a minute for me to process. Sure, Grace and Ms. Hannigan had remained white, but Rose Byrne and Cameron Diaz had played their roles just fine. Should we not support films, just because they decided not to cast black folks to star in every role?

To better understand my mother’s point of view, I wanted to take a closer look at the women in Annie’s life. This immediately led me to the most questionable change made in the Annie remake: In this adaptation, Grace is not the only “good” woman in Annie’s life. Grace is introduced as the contrast to Guy (Bobby Cannavale), the equivalent to the original film’s Rooster, who works for William Stacks (Jamie Foxx) as his over-eager campaign manager. It’s Guy who presents the idea of inviting Annie to lunch, however Stacks insists that Grace pick the foster child up because Guy would have “scared that little girl” and gotten his ass whooped in Harlem. So immediately, the person of color is coded as the inappropriate person to connect with Annie and the white woman is sent in his place, even though she doesn’t want to go. She does warm up to Annie pretty quickly, though, and soon starts rambling secrets about her childhood that she never meant to spill, which becomes a running gag for the rest of the movie.

Miss Hannigan is our second motherly figure who begins the film as we remember her: bitter, selfish, drunk, and prone to yelling. This particular iteration of Miss Hannigan, however, was on track to be famous in her younger days, therefore giving us a “tragic backstory” to explain her bitter attitude. When we first see her with Annie, she has just caught her sneaking back into the house and proceeds to rant about the life she could have lived. Unlike her 1982 counterpart, she not only shows signs of trying to connect with Annie early on, but immediately begins to second guess her “Easy Street” scheme as Annie is being signed away to her faux parents. By the end of the original song “Who Am I” she decides to “start again,” and enlists her girls’ help to rescue Annie, earning her place as a newly positive maternal figure who sings in the big finale.

Black women, by comparison, do not get the same positive treatment in the film. Instead, we are portrayed in two short instances as being useless or just plain rude. The Black woman who auditions to play the faux role of Annie’s “mother” (as per Ms. Hannigan’s scheme) gets less than a minute of screen time, which is dedicated to her showcasing her poor acting and singing skills. She is dismissed by Hannigan for over acting and being off pitch, and off walks the first black woman with speaking lines we see in the film. Since Annie’s fake parents have no relation to Hannigan now, we only get to see them when they’re needed. They play convincingly loving parents up until they have Annie in their car, but as soon as Annie tries to get to know them, they bicker and give her curt answers. Once Annie knows they’re not her real parents, the “mother” immediately becomes snippy and rude, rubbing Annie’s situation in her face by saying that she guesses Mister Stacks got all he need out of her.

Perhaps if this weren’t Annie, this assignment of roles wouldn’t be so alarming. However, Annie’s story is explicitly one about finding the right family. So we as an audience have to consider what it means that neither of the maternal figures in the movie were played by black women. And in this case, limiting the black actresses to the minor roles meant depicting white women as inherently better mother figures—even when they’re reluctant, bitter, or outright unfit—than black women, who are apparently either inept or incapable of kindness. Miss Hannigan, who was initially Annie’s antagonist, makes it to the end of the movie to sing happily alongside her while three characters of color are implied to be arrested and charged for kidnapping. And not only is that offensive, but it’s a massive waste of potential. In remaking the film, the writers and producers also had a chance to showcase positive examples of black love and black family life… which they downright ignored.

The fact of the matter is, cast diversity always seems to be at the expense of people of color. For example, Disney chose not to include any diversity in Frozen (2013), but when it came to retelling Big Hero 6 (2014), they were suddenly willing to diversify a cast that would have been perfectly fine as an all-Japanese film. In Annie’s case, the story would have benefited from being an all, or mostly, black cast. Had Hannigan been a black woman, she still could have called upon her sibling to pick up Annie, thus making her a more useful antagonist and giving the fake parents more screen time. Had Grace been a black woman, we would have been spared yet another instance of “black man falling in love with a white woman” and Annie could have forged a meaningful relationship with a woman who looked like her, which is incredibly important in the development and self-concept for little girls of color.

I’m not denying that 2014 was a great year for diverse casting or that having Quvenzhané Wallis star as Annie isn’t a huge step forward. Even after critiquing the diversity in the movie, I don’t regret spending my money on seeing it in theaters. But as an audience, we have to demand that Hollywood starts catching up to television. We need to see black women as mothers, black women as villains, black women as anything but slaves and maids and the boundless amounts of stereotypes that they keep getting delegated to. Because if an entire group of people is getting left out of our media’s diversity movement, we can’t really call ourselves making any progress at all.

Kwanzaa Imani is writer, musician, and sixth-year Poetry major at the University of Texas at Dallas who happens to have Sickle Cell Anemia. She enjoys rated-E-for-everyone hobbies, critical analysis, and continuing her education. Find her at kwanzaaimani on tumblr.

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