Diana Adesola Mafe reviews the movie A Wrinkle in Time and gives a personal account of what it meant to her as a woman of colour
A Wrinkle in Time tries too hard. The film wants to be spectacular. Even epic. In this it fails, despite a strong cast, impressive cinematography, a haunting soundtrack (with an original song by Sade), and the creative vision of Ava DuVernay, the first black woman to direct a Hollywood picture with a budget of over $100 million. The film is too rushed and too slow all at the same time, which might just be appropriate given the title. Scenes that should be whimsical are strained. Dialogue that should be funny or profound tends to fall flat.
But the film still delivers in important ways. Like the Madeleine L’Engle novel on which it is based, this Disney movie is for children first. I read the novel in the sixth grade and instantly loved it, in no small part because of its smart, awkward, cautious, and yet intrepid female protagonist, Meg Murry. I still love the novel, but it made its greatest impression on me as a gangly eleven-year-old with glasses, braces, and “difficult” hair (like Meg), who explored alternative worlds by way of literature.
My child self would have loved this film. And that fact helps my adult self to see and appreciate the film differently. To borrow the words of Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who gifts her spectacles to Meg (Storm Reid), “[I] see that which is unfolded. Not gone, just unfolded.”
From an “unfolded” vantage point, the film is not just a classic story of good versus evil. It’s also creative, enjoyable, and yes, encouraging to young people. The sweeping vistas of distant planets, the subterranean home of the Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis), the sinister suburbia where every child bounces a ball in perfect unison, the mustachioed marionette (Michael Pena) on a crowded beach, or the quiet sketch art sequences—these are visually arresting scenes that double as life lessons about friendship, trust, perseverence, and love. Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), and Mrs. Who are larger than life (sometimes literally) and add to the vibrancy of the film while sending a message that a diverse cast of women can embody knowledge, power, and experience.
The Murrys themselves model a rare on-screen diversity. Meg’s brilliant scientist parents are an interracial couple (Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Chris Pine). And while she and her adopted brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) may not necessarily look like each other or their respective parents, the film conveys a sense of familial love and belonging that transcends race.
The fact that Meg is a child of color sends its own powerful message, one that would not have been lost on the eleven-year-old, brown-skinned me. Her father-saving quest aside, Meg’s real challenge is to learn to love herself, a lesson that doesn’t always come easily to brown and black girls. So, it matters that her little brother repeatedly declares her infinite potential. It matters that her boy crush Calvin (Levi Miller) repeatedly tells her how much he likes her hair. And it matters that Oprah—I mean Mrs. Which—asks poignantly, “Do you realize how many events, choices, that had to occur since the birth of the universe leading up to the making of you? Just exactly the way you are?”
These words of affirmation are a buildup to Meg’s confrontation with the evil being known as the “It,” which is really a confrontation with herself. To win the battle, she must reject It’s version of a “better” Meg, one with cooler clothes, straighter hair, and no glasses. Meg destroys this alter ego and uses love to triumph.
This may not be the most epic of battles, but it is a touching one, not least because it reminds girls of color that they have innate worth. As Charles Wallace screams out to his sister (much to her embarrassment) across the playground, “You may be a mess, but you have more potential than anybody here. Mom was funny looking at your age too. And look at her now, she’s beautiful!” In a way, this description captures A Wrinkle in Time, which is sometimes a mess, but still a film with great potential and beauty.
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Dr Diana Adesola Mafe is an associate professor of English at Denison University, where she teaches courses in postcolonial, gender, and black studies. She is the author of Mixed Race Stereotypes in South African and American Literature: Coloring Outside the (Black and White) Lines (2013) and Where No Black Woman Has Gone Before: Subversive Portrayals in Speculative Film & TV (2018).