Politics & Policy

How Do You Solve Problems like Annie and Ida?

Orphans in the storm in Sixties Poland and contemporary New York

If you think hacking Sony was wrong, wait till you see Sony’s hack job on Annie. Not only is this a charmless remake of the popular Broadway musical (first filmed — poorly — in 1984), it’s specifically a patronizing, hip-hop-era remake. The curly-haired white orphan girl with hollow, vacant eyes is now an insolent black child living in a Harlem group home. Her Daddy Warbucks benefactor is now a black media mogul with political ambitions named Stacks — as in “stacking paper” (hip-hop slang for “money”).

This black 21st-century Annie represents more than African-American upward mobility; it’s a form of empire building. Producer Will Smith lays claim to a Broadway perennial while simultaneously bringing hip-hop’s materialistic ethos to the big screen. Funniest thing about this unfunny and mostly unpleasant-because-awkwardly-reconceived remake is that its hip-hop flag is waved by an orphan. Annie, as played by eleven-year-old Quevanzhane Wallis of the post–Hurricane Katrina bleeding-heart fantasia Beasts of the Southern Wild, is a deracinated figure. She is as much a symbol of cultural deprivation and social neglect as the bewildered Polish girl in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, the grim post-Holocaust movie now playing for award — and hipster — consideration.

Raised an orphan in a Catholic convent, teenage Ida (Agata Tzebuchowska) is preparing to take her vows as a novitiate when she learns about her heritage: Her parents were Jews killed during the Second World War. This 1960s-set plot ironically recalls the reluctant novitiate in the landmark musical The Sound of Music (“How do you solve a problem like Ida?”). It gives Pawlikowski, who directed the 2004 lesbian atheist drama My Summer of Love, another whack at atheism. Blank-faced Ida hasn’t a thought in her head but suddenly yearns to emulate her just-met aunt, Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a lewd, bitter socialist apparatchik who smokes, drinks, screws, and scoffs at her niece’s wimpled piety. Ida’s backsliding sequence has similarities to Annie’s thrilled introduction to extravagant high living.

How does one solve a problem like Ida? It has been inordinately hailed by pessimistic reviewers who ignore that Pawlikowski isn’t much interested in Judaism either; yet they praise his nihilism. The film’s slate-gray black-and-white imagery evokes art-house-era Bergman and Bresson but without the numinous tone of Winter Light and Mouchette. This imitation asceticism is fake — just chic austerity, as when Ida visits a spare, smoky jazz bar and learns about the gospel of John Coltrane from a sexy saxophonist. Her temptation leads to deflowering, then bewilderment; bereft of any sensuality or belief, she wanders through the Polish winter, suitcase in arm, without family or belief of any kind. Neither religious teaching nor family obligation move her. Her disorientation is meant to seem inevitable, but Pawlikowski rigs his thesis to propose her affectlessness as a universal condition. What once was a Sixties art-house cliché is now a Millennial cliché: Ida is a zombie. 

The new Annie provides a different kind of zombie; she represents that generation born as welfare babies, crack babies, or simply abandoned. As Annie and her orphan pals sing “It’s the Hard Knock Life,” the song expresses the cluelessness of kids without family heritage, who lack the motivation that comes of ethical upbringing and moral discipline. All they know is materialism — the liveliest scene (“I think I’m gonna like it here”) has Annie and Stacks’s assistant (Rose Byrne) frolicking amid luxe in an open-air Manhattan penthouse of Bloomberg’s dreams. They ignore the race, class, rental storm on New York’s streets.

Pawlikowski left catechism out of Ida, but in Annie new teaching gets spoken by Daddy Stacks: “The harder I work the more opportunities I get. You’ve got to play the cards you’re dealt. That’s what I like about this city. No matter who you are or what you are, you just got to want it bad enough and work with what you got.” It’s a rapper’s credo performed by Jamie Foxx, but Jay-Z said as much — and better — when he covered “Hard Knock Life” back in 1999 and subtitled it “Ghetto Anthem.”

This Annie, directed by Will Gluck, is truly orphaned. Cut off from its original concept (Harold Gray’s 1928 comic strip), it gloms off hip-hop’s commercial potential. (Stacks’s advice “The city’s yours, so take it” paraphrases “The world is yours” from hip-hop’s official favorite movie, Brian DePalma’s 1993 Scarface.) Yet Annie lacks hip-hop essence. The show’s big numbers (“Easy Street,” “Tomorrow”) could have been remixed but weren’t, leaving social essence to the unprepossessing little Quevanzhane Wallis with her Dante DeBlasio–styled electioneering Afro. Even before the hackers exposed Sony executives’ racial insensitivity, it was easy to see that Sony’s Annie isn’t racist, just venal. Sorry, but the blackfacing of Annie provokes an up-to-date, skeptical, sociological reading.

— Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review Online and received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.

Armond White — Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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