Ava DuVernay is the leading black female director of our time. Her third feature film, Selma, is a masterpiece of civil rights cinema, and her Netflix documentary 13th, exposed the political and business connections that support the largest prison system in the world. A Wrinkle in Time is her fourth feature and first mega-budget Hollywood fantasy film. All in all, it is a bit boring, but by no means a disaster. It has its moments (almost all of which involve Reese Witherspoon's performance of Mrs. Whatsit), and it manages to capture the essence or mode of Oprah Winfrey's celebrity (more about that in a moment). Indeed, anyone with a certain amount of mainstream production experience and technical proficiency could, with the given cultural materials—which are not eternal but historically conditioned and malleable—have made the exact same film. And this is exactly the main problem I have with it.
It wasn't possible for me to watch A Wrinkle in Time without feeling an awkwardness that I could only attribute to the great effort DuVernay must have made to keep the film focused on fantasy. Race is totally out of the picture; so is any obvious criticism of American capitalism. There's just good and evil, the wonderfulness of the universe, magical planets, floating flowers, and the blandest suburban life imaginable.
One might ask: Why can't a black woman make a film that is not about race or poverty or prisons? Why do only white
guys people get to make mega-budget fantasy films? And I would answer: This indeed presupposes that fantasy cinema is the default form. In your view of things, if DuVernay lived, say, in a society that was fair and truly a-racial, then she would not make political films, but timeless, classless, race-less fantasies like A Wrinkle in Time. That is, according to you, the norm. That is the kind of work all of us would make if we lived in a perfect society. A film that doesn't qualify good and evil.
According to this view, DuVernay's film Selma is, then, the anomaly. People make films like that because we live in an imperfect society. But if you apply a little more thought to this matter, you will eventually see the other side of this situation: The reason so many white people make fantasy films is not because it is the norm (or that they, and not others, live in a perfect world), but because they don't want to deal with stories about black women who have been beaten and humiliated by racist cops or black men whose lives are permanently destroyed by a profit-seeking prison system. Fantasy is not normal in and of itself; it is, instead, a normal response to a social situation that is wracked with unresolved class, race, and social issues.
This is why DuVernay's film is not easy to watch. It doesn't tap or dip into the timeless, but reinforces a concept of society that has been shaped by historical and economic forces. Given the freedom from want and oppression that many whites enjoy, would we all be making Wrinkle-like movies? Movies that speak to our inner child? Movies that imagine that this is how the mind really flies when it's set free?
And now, a word on Oprah Winfrey, who plays Mrs. Which. For reasons that are not clearly explained, she appears on earth and another planet—the one with the flying flowers—as a giant. She looms over the other characters in the garden of the suburban home, and she doesn't walk, but floats from here to there. As she moves, her mind always seems to be elsewhere. This computer-generated image of Winfrey, the American icon and billionaire, captures how one feels about her. When she assumes a human size (which happens on planets that are closer to the evil force in the universe), we see the Winfrey we would expect to see in person. This is how she really looks. But when she is a giant, this how we feel her. She is this big American being.