Diversity swings and roundabouts. Earlier this month, the Academy Awards ceremony was careful to rally around the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements. By the end of the night, just six women took home Oscars, and two of those were awarded to the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. One week later, Black Panther and A Wrinkle in Time occupied the top two spots at the US box office, marking the first time in history that two films by African-American directors – Ryan Coogler and Ava DuVernay – straddle the top of the charts.
By now, DuVernay is accustomed to breaking records. In 2012, she became the first African-American woman to be named best director at the Sundance Film Festival. In 2015, at a moment when the ACLU Women's Rights Project and the ACLU of Southern California requested that the California state and federal government look into the plainly illegal lack of female directors in both TV and film, DuVernay became the first black female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe and the first black female director to have her film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. (Both nods for the civil rights drama, Selma).
She subsequently returned to the Academy Awards, having been shortlisted for the Best Documentary Feature for 13th, her extraordinary chronicle of historical and contemporary slavery in the US.
When the studios came a-courting, she passed on Black Panther (after lining up eventual Wakandan king, Chadwick Boseman) but said 'yes' to different Disney prospect: an adaptation of Madeleine L'Engle's fantasy novel, A Wrinkle in Time.
It’s yet another landmark moment for DuVernay: the first $100 million-plus blockbuster helmed by a black woman. In all senses, it’s a film that’s quite unlike any other $100 million-plus blockbuster. DuVernay has said that she “. . . didn’t want to make a film like a boy. I wanted to make a film like a girl.”
How does one go about making a film like a girl, I wonder?
“By not trying to be someone that I’m not,” says DuVernay. “By not looking at other films and trying to copy what’s been done before. By trying to tap into what was interesting to me, what was beautiful to me, how I wanted the characters, the costumes, the hair to look. A world filled with flowers. A world filled with beautiful things. It’s like with every filmmaker. Don’t try to emulate something else. Be confident in your own interests and tastes.”
A Wrinkle in Time tells the story of a young teenager named Meg Murry (the multi-racial Storm Reid) who embarks on a mission to save her scientist father (Chris Pine) from a dark, engulfing force. She's assisted on her adventures by her classmate Calvin O'Keefe (Levi Miler), her precocious younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric MacCabe), and three celestial beings – Mrs Who (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs Which (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) – who help Meg jump, or tesser, through space-time.
Today the entire diverse – DuVernay prefers the word ‘inclusive’ – cast have joined the director in London for the film’s UK premiere. (I’m shocked to briefly glimpse Oprah on my way to meeting DuVernay, having previously assumed she lives an imaginary cloud with the Easter Bunny and mermaids for neighbours.)
It's odd to see this many players, especially Oprah, on a publicity tour. But DuVernay inspires loyalty among actors. Speaking to The Irish Times in 2015, David Oyelowo, the star of the director's breakout second feature, Middle of Nowhere, and of Selma said: "She is as good a filmmaker as I ever worked with and I'm grateful to have worked with some great filmmakers. She has a remarkable voice. She's as good with the silences between words as she is with words. She allows characters and moments to breathe."
Troublingly, Selma, which saw Oyelowo essay Martin Luther King, endured an ugly backlash for far fewer historical contractions and minor inaccuracies than most biographical films might be cited for. Even in this part of the world, the film was roundly and bizarrely criticised, particularly for its depiction of Lyndon B Johnson, before it had actually opened.
The public, who drummed up $66,787,908 of box office revenues for the same film, were not inclined to agree, especially not the ones using Twitter. Indeed, the #OscarsSoWhite movement came into being when DuVernay and Oyelowo were overlooked by the Academy in acting and directing categories.
Looking back at those pre-emptive Selma criticisms now, it's easy to locate them as part of a broader, polarised political discourse around film, the same discourse that has led to furious, hate-filled campaigns against Paul Feig's gender-swapped Ghostbusters and Ryan Coogler's Black Panther.
There was more than a little schadenfreude in Fox News’ recent headline: “Oprah’s ultra-PC ‘Wrinkle in Time’ stung with bad reviews as ‘cringeworthy’ $100M Disney movie could bomb, experts say”.
Elsewhere, James Dawson, the film critic for the Libertarian website The Federalist, dismissed A Wrinkle in Time as "the latest victim of diversity-deranged stunt casting" and noted that: ". . . twin brothers from the book are missing entirely from the movie, which may be a blessing, considering that political correctness probably would have dictated they be played by a Native American dwarf and a disabled transsexual."
You are the first person to ask about the hugs in the film. I love hugs
Dawson, to be fair, had seen the film. Long before A Wrinkle in Time was unveiled, negative 'audience reviews' had appeared on Rotten Tomatoes, decrying DuVernay's adaptation as a "piece of shit". One site user wrote (in an oddly specific assessment for a film he had yet to see): "It's one big cliche, the acting seems dry, the only performance I can possibly say that will be GOOD is Chris Pine's, that's it. Casting just for the sake of diversity or being politically correct does not make a film, Disney."
Targeted campaigns have become common in the movieverse. Last month, Facebook intervened against a similarly-minded troll group who organised an event called: "Give Black Panther a Rotten Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes".
DuVernay is firm, yet polite about such online ‘down-voting’ campaigns.
“You know, I try not to focus on it,” she says. “I just kind of shake my head about it and say: what a shame. What a miserable person you have to be to take time out of your day to put someone else down. This film was made with love. I know it has been received with love by so many millions of people who are enjoying it around the world. We’ve received an “A” cinema score from kids. This was made for kids aged seven to 14. And kids are loving it. I think it’s too bad when people feel like they have to behave like that. Get a hobby.”
At least some of the negative reviews can be attributed to the film's defiant spirit. At a time when other motion pictures are dominated by grey gloom or orange and teal colour grading, A Wrinkle in Time is as colourful as its inclusive cast. It's unabashedly girly: a film of "pretty flowers and pretty dresses", as its creator puts it.
Warm and fuzzy Oprahisms
DuVernay’s privileging of warm and fuzzy Oprahisms alongside a worshipful view of maths and physics is simultaneously incongruous and entirely against the grain of contemporary cinema. This is a film where equations coexist with sincerity, a film that features – we’re willing to bet – more hugs than any movie before it. There are hugs that impart wisdom; hugs between characters united after years; hugs to denote the warmest of friendships. Each hug is carefully and usually closely framed, almost as if each clinch is an original character in its own right.
“You’re the first person to ask about the hugs,” says the filmmaker. “I love hugs. Definitely. There is something about an embrace on camera that is warming to the heart, I know there have been times in my life – and I’m a big film lover – when I’ve needed to feel a certain way and I put on a certain film. And I want this film to be that for young people. It’s a dark, divisive world out there and I want this film to be a slice of sweetness, a slice of light. Beyond the big themes of good and evil, there’s an intimacy between people in the film that I hope young people are comforted by.”
I loved sci-fi and fantasy films. But I felt like those films never loved me back
Film writer, producer, director and distributor Ava DuVernay was one of five siblings who grew up in Compton, California, raised by her mother, Darlene, a kindergarten teacher, and father, Murray Maye, who owned a carpet business. At UCLA, she majored in African-American studies and English, hoping to break into journalism, until an internship for CBS News – a position that demanded she go through the trash of a juror in the OJ Simpson trial – gave her pause for thought.
She soon changed gears, and was working as a film publicist by day, and as MC Eve (one half of the socially-conscious hip-hop duo Figures of Speech) by night. Her earliest forays into filmmaking were inspired by her rap career: This Is the Life, a documentary about the underground hip-hop scene at LA's Good Life Café (where she frequently performed), was released in 2008; My Mic Sounds Nice, a film about female MCs, followed in 2010. Her little-seen first narrative feature, I Will Follow, received rave reviews from the late Roger Ebert among others. Her second feature, Middle of Nowhere, wowed just about everyone, including Oprah, who became a producer and star on DuVernay's Martin Luther King biopic, Selma.
"She's a very giving actor," says DuVernay of the woman who will, by Oprah's own reckoning, Not Be President. "She's a kind, kind lady. She's not intimidating. She works hard not to be, because she knows her presence proceeds her. She's a great friend of mine. I adored her in Selma. She's a producer on Queen Sugar, a show we have in the US."
And now Oprah is playing the wisest soul in the universe in A Wrinkle in Time. What would Ava DuVernay, aged seven to 14, have thought of all this?
"Oh, she'd love it! I always loved sci-fi and fantasy. I loved The NeverEnding Story. I loved those kinds of films. But I never saw anyone like me in them. I felt like those films never loved me back. So this film loves everybody back. Because there's a bit of everyone in this film. Asian people. Latino people. Black people. Caucasian people. Older people. People of all kinds of cultures, colours ages, weights. That's what we wanted to show. And to share."
The biggest grossing movies directed by black women at the US box office
- Herbie: Fully Loaded (Angela Robinson, 2005) The lesbian director of this smash hit about a naughty Volkswagen returned with Professor Marston and his Wonder Women last year ($94.6 million).
- A Wrinkle in Time (Ava DuVernay, 2018) The first $100-million-plus budgeted film to be directed by a black woman has taken $60,751,533 in the US, and more than $70 million worldwide, while still awaiting release in most territories ($60.8 million).
- Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014) In 1965, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr leads a dangerous campaign to secure equal voting rights in Alabama ($58.9 million).
- The Secret Life of Bees (Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2008) It's 1964 and a 14-year-old girl living on a matriarchal peach farm in South Carolina pieces together the circumstances of her mother's death ($48.3 million).
- Love & Basketball (Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2000) Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps are aspiring ballers who fall for one another ($46.8 million).
- A Wrinkle in Time is on general release