justira: A purple, gender-ambiguous unicorn pony in the style of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. (lady business)
[personal profile] justira posting in [community profile] ladybusiness
Hey I hear comparing A Wrinkle in Time and Black Panther is popular! Because pitting marginalized people against each other instead of celebrating their shared successes is great, right?

Well I am going to talk about A Wrinkle in Time and Black Panther— and how they present visions of black femininity. Let's go!

The film A Wrinkle in Time is, in many ways, about the invisible made visible. The film does not just deliver a unique aesthetic, but also puts on screen for all to see the lived realities that get elided in our society: black women scientists, peaceful black neighbourhoods, racially mixed families. And a young black girl who, when all is said and done, loves herself and her hair. Ava DuVernay had the momentous task of defining visually not just fantastical exterior worlds and abstract concepts like a tesseract, but also the interior world of one girl: Meg Murry.

When the novel A Wrinkle in Time was first published, Meg Murry was a groundbreaking heroine in speculative fiction, and I think that's an aspect that DuVernay's film adaptation absolutely nailed. Storm Reid's performance as Meg — angry and vulnerable, stubborn and loving, scared and determined — delivers on the promise of the prose Meg. But DuVernay also updated Meg's character in ways that retain the rebellious spirit of the original but recontextualize her circumstances and struggles for a modern audience. One such note that I particularly loved was the recurring theme of Meg's hair and how that was an update on the by now very tired glasses trope. It's a grace note that resonates along with the other visual and narrative cues DuVernay has put together to signal an approach to speculative fiction that is just as bold as the novel was in its own time.

"I never saw my neighborhood on film until I was a teenager, with Boyz n the Hood, and it was all being shot up. So for there to be this beauty, to have these celestial beings come into the hood and take this girl away to fly to awesome planets? I mean, come on."
— Ava Duvernay (source)
Seeing a young biracial black girl have an interstellar adventure — and not just a fantastical one but one grounded in science — is amazing in and of itself, but DuVernay has surrounded her with other women of colour and situated her in a black neighborhood and diverse school setting. Meg's appearance and sociocultural context are presented with a politically-motivated matter-of-factness, a sort of aggressive normalization in a genre that does not historically leave a lot of room for people who look like Meg.

But what is equally powerful is Meg's interiority and how it is legitimized. Meg is allowed to mourn in a world where black women's suffering is to be exploited, not empathized with; she is allowed to be angry in a world where the angry black woman is a stereotype as opposed to a reasonable reaction to unreasonable circumstances. In the climax of the film, Meg's insecurities are made flesh, delivered to her in a vision of herself with more expensive clothes and straight hair — the film takes the novel's theme of conformity and delivers this version of Meg that is coded, in the ways black women are constantly asked to be, as more white. Meg rejects this version of herself and triumphs using her love for her brother Charles Wallace — but also her love for her herself. Taking the white Meg of the novel and casting Storm Reid to play her is a powerful statement not only about the place of young girls in speculative fiction, but about the place of black women in society.
"I wasn’t just casting for actresses. I was casting for leaders—icons."
— Ava Duvernay (source)

Furthermore, we also have Meg's scientist mother, a woman whose rigorous research was upstaged by her white husband's starry-eyed impatience (I'll come back to him later). And we have Oprah as Mrs. Which, who is portrayed as gloriously gigantic by a black woman who has struggled very publicly with coming to terms with her body. These are important things to see and important stories to tell. DuVernay's very deliberate casting choices and what visuals and narratives she chose to make room for in a film with too much to tell show us what she wants us to take away from the film, what seeds she wants to plant in the minds of the audience.

This groundbreaking work is an endeavour shared by Black Panther. In this movie, too, we see black women as leaders, black women as warriors ("be a warrior, Meg"), black women as scientists. Black women as love interests. Black women as admirable, as aspirational. As visible. As I wrote in my Black Panther quick hit, the women of that movie are its beating heart. How the protagonist and antagonist treat the (black) women around them is one of the most notable differences between them. T'Challa respects and admires women, and his love and admiration for Nakia is particularly palpable and worth examining. Nakia presents the clearest moral vision in the film, advocating an approach T'Challa does not initially subscribe to but in the end synthesizes with Erik Killmonger's rhetoric into a new whole that serves as the movie's ultimate narrative takeaway. Black Panther validates Nakia by following the thread of her beliefs and input through both T'Challa's narrative and her own; this is an actual journey that T'Challa has to take within himself, something he has to learn and grow into. In A Wrinkle in Time Levi Miller's Calvin looks at Meg like she hung the moon and stars right from the outset. His admiration is awkward and sincere in a very believable way, and the way he compliments Meg's hair is such a powerful thing for a young black girl to hear. And in a moment on Camazotz when Meg and Calvin are in danger, it is Meg who turns to face the threat and holds out a hand for Calvin to take. Which he does. I am here, my friends, for white men who will follow black women into love and danger.

But Calvin is not the only white man in the movie whose relationship with a black woman I want to examine. Meg's father Mr. Murry has a surprisingly complicated arc in this regard, and DuVernay's version of him is not an entirely positive one. Chris Pine's Mr. Murry feels like the childlike wonder that should be Meg's has been displaced entirely onto him and magnified by white masculinity's besetting sins: pride and self-centeredness. He took over his wife's presentation of their research, so excited and deaf to social cues that he delegitimized not only his own standing in the scientific community, but Mrs. Murry's as well. White men get away with ignoring social cues in a way that no other demographic can, and I feel DuVernay made a deliberate choice to show this in action, including the resulting conflict between Mr. and Mrs. Murry. Mr. Murry's absence from his children's lives is also portrayed in a critical way: he was so caught up in the wonder of his own discoveries that he abandoned his family. While a not entirely voluntary abandonment — he did not mean to be gone so thoroughly or so long — Mr. Murry's absence from his black daughter's life and Mrs. Murry's resultant time as a single black mother are powerful echoes of all-too-common situations in the real world. Meg's reunion with her father is gut-wrenching, thanks in no small part to Storm Reid's absolutely out-of-this-world delivery, but it is so affecting not just because of the general reunion narrative but because of the social context in which DuVernay has deliberately situated it. And, when Mr. and Mrs. Murry are reunited, Gugu Mbatha-Raw delivers a sublimely subtle performance of inner conflict at her husband's return. In the climax of the film, Mr. Murry abandons his children yet again — he is, in the end, not strong enough, and Meg is. Meg is a stronger person than her father.

Mr. Murry is portrayed as having a lot to learn from his wife and his daughter. This is so important to see for a man, just like it was for T'Challa, but it is a relation that is especially important to see between white men and black women. Meg and Mrs. Murry, Nakia and Shuri — these are black women who are shown, clearly and decisively, to excel where the men in their lives stumble. And we are not just starting to see this in speculative fiction, but also in real-world stories that come solidly grounded in history — Hidden Figures — or with fictional action-oriented setups — Proud Mary. I want to pull out Proud Mary in particular, because that is a movie that I feel really suffered from a lack of faith by its creators in its ability to find a market. But while Proud Mary may have technical flaws born of that misguided doubt, it is still a vision of black femininity worth acknowledging, a role black women can and should be seen in. It is not an accident that the title of Hidden Figures alludes to invisibility. Each of these four films makes visible lives, narratives, contexts, and roles for black women that are long overdue.

In the end, A Wrinkle in Time and Black Panther are not in competition with each other, but in collaboration. Ryan Coogler and Ava DuVernay did this work together, side-by-side not only in a metaphorical sense but a very literal one as they put the finishing touches on their movies across the hall from one another. The movies have wildly different aesthetics, but speak to the same lacuna in our media landscape, and the movies are, at heart, about many of the same things: a black person's relationship with their father, synthesizing disparate parts of one's identity, and the place of black women in society. This is, setting all else aside, work worth celebrating.

Date: 2018-04-01 03:45 pm (UTC)
lynnenne: (discovery: boldly go)
From: [personal profile] lynnenne
Terrific essay. Thanks for sharing it.

Date: 2018-04-02 05:39 pm (UTC)
oracne: turtle (Default)
From: [personal profile] oracne
This is such a terrific post. Thank you.

Date: 2018-04-02 10:53 pm (UTC)
lokifan: black Converse against a black background (Default)
From: [personal profile] lokifan
This is a lovely, excellently-done bit of analysis.

Date: 2018-04-17 08:07 pm (UTC)
booksarelife: Tilted photo of Peggy Carter's head, shoulders and torso, where she is wearing a navy dress with two red stripes across the middle (Default)
From: [personal profile] booksarelife
This is wonderful!! I love how you pull everything together, especially your analysis of Mr. Murry!! He felt slightly awkward, as a person, not that the character was awkwardly done, but I couldn't pinpoint what felt off to me about him, until I read this.


Lady Business welcome badge

Pitch Us!
Review Policy
Comment Policy
Writers We Like!
Contact Us

tumblr icon twitter icon syndication icon

image asking viewer to support Lady Business on Patreon

Who We Are

Ira is an illustrator and gamer who decided that disagreeing with everyone would be a good way to spend their time on the internet. more? » twitter icon tumblr icon AO3 icon

By day Jodie is currently living the dream as a bookseller for a major British chain of book shops. She has no desire to go back to working in the real world. more? » tumblr icon last.fm icon

KJ KJ is an underemployed librarian, lifelong reader, and more recently an avid gamer. more? » twitter icon tumblr icon AO3 icon

Renay writes for Lady Business and co-hosts Fangirl Happy Hour, a pop culture media show that includes a lot yelling about the love lives of fictional characters. Enjoys puns. more? » twitter icon pinboard icon tumblr icon

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently over-flowing. more? » twitter icon pinboard icon AO3 icon


Book Review Index
Film Review Index
Television Review Index
Game Review Index
Non-Review Index
We Want It!
Fanwork Recs
all content by tags

Our Projects

hugo award recs

Criticism & Debate

Indeed, we do have a comment policy.

What's with your subtitle?

It's a riff off an extremely obscure meme only Tom Hardy and Myspace fans will appreciate.

hugo award winner
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios