As controversy continues in Hollywood over a lack of female directors and a lack of racial diversity behind and front of the camera, a classic story about three courageous children who fight against evil may be a model for how diversity is done.
African-American director Ava DuVernay, who directed the acclaimed 2014 movie “Selma,” will direct a Disney film adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic 1963 novel “A Wrinkle in Time.” In taking on the job, Ms. DuVernay becomes the first woman of color to direct a live-action film with a budget of more than $100 million.
That cast will be a diverse one, too. Actress Storm Reid was cast as protagonist Meg Murry after a casting announcement for the role reportedly said the production was looking for “a 14-year-old mixed-race girl of African-American and Caucasian descent.”
“Wrinkle” tells the story of siblings Meg Murry and Charles Wallace Murry, who team up with their friend Calvin O'Keefe to search for their missing father. They are aided on their journey by three mysterious women, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which.
And along with actress Reese Witherspoon as Mrs Whatsit, “The Mindy Project” Indian American actress Mindy Kaling will portray Mrs. Who, while Oprah Winfrey will take on the role of Mrs. Which.
The cast diversity looks to continue if the casting announcements are any indication, with a role that sounds like Meg’s brother, Charles Wallace, being listed as “a 5-year-old mixed-race boy of African-American and Caucasian descent” and a part that sounds an awful lot like Calvin being listed as “a 16-year-old boy who is an ethnic minority.”
The choice of DuVernay as director prompts praise from industry watchers. “It's great that she's female. I think it's landmark that she's a woman of color. But what excited me when I heard it, because I didn't think about those things, really, is they hired a director who really finds the humanity in her films,” says Mark Evan Schwartz, associate professor of screenwriting at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He says he especially enjoyed DuVernay’s 2014 film “Selma,” adding, “Here's a woman who can take an epic story and just completely drive it home on a human scale.”
DuVernay has also directed the 2010 movie "I Will Follow" and the new Netflix documentary "13th." She co-created the OWN TV series "Queen Sugar."
Ross Brown, program director for the MFA in writing and contemporary media at Antioch University in Santa Barbara, says of DuVernay’s hiring simply: “It’s about time.”
Disney's hiring of DuVernay occurs as federal and state government agencies are now challenging the lack of female directors in Hollywood.
In 2015, the ACLU Women’s Rights Project and the ACLU of Southern California requested that the California state and federal government look into the lack of female directors in both TV and film.
Earlier this year, Melissa Goodman, director of the LGBTQ, Gender and Reproductive Justice Project at the ACLU of Southern California, said in a statement, “ACLU SoCal and the ACLU Women’s Rights Project are pleased that the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs gave careful consideration to our findings and responded by launching a wide-ranging and well-resourced investigation into the industry’s hiring practices.”
In September, the Directors Guild of America published a report that included the statistic that white men directed more than two-thirds of all TV installments that were created in the 2015-2016 network TV season (while the study used the network TV calendar model, the study included cable companies like FX and streaming services like Netflix).
White female directors increased 1 percentage point and directed 14 percent of the TV episodes studied, while female directors of color directed 3 percent of them, the same as last year. (Male directors of color helmed 16 percent of the episodes, which was up 1 point from last year.)
The problem with current hiring practices, says Brown at Antioch University, is that “it becomes self-perpetuating. Because people say, well, I don't want to hire someone to direct a $100 million movie who's never directed a $100 million movie before.... So it's great to see somebody like Ava break through and hopefully it just shatters the myth that you have to have directed a $100 million movie before in order to direct a $100 million movie.”
As for the acting talent involved in the project, the casting announcements for “Wrinkle” arrive as anticipation and, most likely, Hollywood apprehension grows over what the coming Oscars season will bring.
At the 2016 Oscars, only white actors were nominated for every acting prize (16 total) for the second year in a row. In response, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences invited more than 600 new members this year, 46 percent of which are women and 41 percent of which are people of color.
Schwartz says he’s pleased that Ms. Reid was cast as the lead in "Wrinkle" because having diversity with actors has a different effect than diversity behind the camera. Ms. Reid made her film debut in the Academy Award-winning film "12 Years a Slave" (2013), which was directed by Steve McQueen.
“The fact that a child of color – I guess children … are being cast in these roles, is very significant because ... everyone in the audience sees them and particularly for the children of the audience of any ethnicity, [they] will relate to the children as they're seen up on the screen," says Schwartz, adding that "given the racial divides in this country, I think anything that can be done right now that helps erase the divides I think is a very, very good thing.”
“Wrinkle in Time” offers something else that's rare in Hollywood: a story with a young girl at the center. Of the 10 domestically highest-grossing movies of the year so far, only “Finding Dory” and “Zootopia” have female protagonists. Other big films with female characters, such as “Captain America: Civil War” and “Suicide Squad,” have the characters as part of an ensemble, not taking center stage.
Of course, in Hollywood, success often speaks the loudest. Will “Wrinkle” find an audience?
Brown notes how little we know about the project yet, including release dates and how the film will be marketed. But “it certainly has a lot going for it,” he says. “A time-honored book … I can imagine parents and grandparents who enjoyed the book as kids wanting to bring their kids or grandkids to see the movie.”
Schwartz also sees a generations effect possibly coming into play.
“I know that there will be a very big audience very interested in seeing this movie because … the novel was published in the early 1960s, so by this point, 50-some years later, there's a couple generations that could be very eager to see this together,” Schwartz says.