What It Was Like To Finally See A Movie Hero That Looks Like Me

Photo: Courtesy of Disney.
It was less than five minutes into A Wrinkle In Time that I started crying. It's a vibrant, delightful young adult adventure, so it might sound odd that I would cry over Disney's adaption of the beloved book, originally published in 1962. But in one of the movie's earliest scenes, we meet protagonist Meg Murry, played by 14-year-old Storm Reid. With her glasses, brown skin, big curly hair, and love for learning, she's the prime target for a group of girls led by her Regina George-like next door neighbor, Veronica (Rowan Blanchard). In an instant, that bullying scene took me back to my own middle school experience as the only awkward Black girl in my grade with glasses and frizzy hair. And the realization that this was the first time I'd ever seen my own adolescent experience so clearly reflected on the big screen was so sudden and so poignant, I had no choice other than to let the tears fall, one by one.
I'm a longtime fan of A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L'Engle, so when it was first announced in 2010 that Disney was doing a big screen adaptation, I nerded out. And when they then shared in 2016 that Ava DuVernay was directing — the first Black woman to ever direct a $100 million movie — I nerded out doubletime. But it was the casting of Reid as Murry that truly got me obsessed with what this could mean not just for me as a book lover, but moviegoers everywhere. While I have to give props to Disney for creating an array of diverse live-action TV movies throughout my childhood — ranging from Gotta Kick It Up to The Cheetah Girls (remember them?!) — the Blockbuster-level live action movies that came out in my pre-teen era were the likes of Harry Potter and Lord Of The Rings. In other words: Starring boys, with some pretty cool girl characters as sidekicks (shoutout to Hermione!), but never any that looked like myself. And not much has changed since my teen years: In 2016, only 29 percent of on-screen protagonists were women, and just 14 percent of all female on-screen characters were Black.
So a teenaged Black girl leading a major budget movie like this one is no small feat. Especially one that's based on a book with pre-existing descriptions. In L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time, Meg is a young girl with frizzy hair and freckles. While her race is never explicitly stated, she was typically depicted as white on the book's various covers and also, in the earlier made-for-TV Disney version. That was often the case with many of my favorite books, so DuVernay making the decision to cast a girl who fits many of those same characteristics — lack of self-confidence, frizzy hair — but just so happens to be Black was not only groundbreaking, but inspiring. It made me question myself: Why had I typically envisioned the characters in books as white, unless the author told me otherwise? Why can't any of us simply use our imaginations to make a story look however we want it to — both in the real world, but also in Hollywood?
In an interview with DuVernay and Reid recently at Refinery29 for International Women's Day, the three of us discussed the way we all individually bring characters to life in our own minds — and in DuVernay's case, how that translated to the big screen.
"When I read books, I would put myself in them, so I would just imagine myself doing the things." DuVernay told me. "Even still now, I can watch a music video, like I watch a Nicki Minaj video and put myself in it! That's just my imagination. I know that this is something that's really problematic in terms of an author expressly writing something, and sometimes it leaves people out. Mindy Kaling said something really interesting to me, she said, 'I love sci-fi, I love fantasy, but it was a genre that never loved me back, because I never saw myself in it.' So that's something we're looking to correct in this — that's why there's a little bit of everybody in this film."
Reid, meanwhile, was more like me when it comes to the way we're trained to interpret characters.
"I did the exact opposite. When I read things, I'm a very visual person, so if in the book it says that Meg was a white girl with freckles and crazy hair, that's who she was," she said. "I didn't see myself as her. For me, it has to be said that this character is a Black girl. But once I got the role of Meg it all made sense. It did make sense for a young African-American girl who also has curly hair to be saving the world without superpowers."
One of the most integral parts of this multicultural take on the classic is the fact that Meg's race is never addressed in the movie. Her bi-racial family includes her mother (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, herself bi-racial in real life), her kooky scientist father (Chris Pine) who's disappeared into space, and her precocious younger brother, Charles Wallace, adorably portrayed by up-and-comer Deric McCabe. In flashbacks in the early scenes that introduce us to the family, we learn that Charles Wallace is adopted, but it's a quick note, not something that's dwelled upon. Here, DuVernay creates a contemporary take on a familiar story that manages to be inclusive, but also doesn't beat topics like adoption or race over the head. L'Engle's characters are given the breathing room to simply exist, instead of constantly discuss their differences.
One aspect that does get some purposeful yet subtle attention is Meg's hair, which she either wears out or up in a bun with loose curls throughout the movie. At one point, we meet an "evil" version of Meg, who's dressed much sexier and has her hair straight — a version used by a villain to mess with Meg's mind and convince her that certain things would make her "better." But there's clearly an intended deeper message there, because those of us with curly and natural hair have been sent the message that straight hair is better for most of our lives. When Meg denies this faux version of herself, I applauded.
And on two different occasions, Meg's friend slash love interest Calvin (played by the soon-to-be-a-hearthrob Levi Miller) tells Meg that he likes her hair. At the beginning of the movie, she brushes him off. But at the end, when she's gained some confidence and is standing a little taller, she simply says "Thank you." I have never seen a young white boy tell a Black girl with a texture like mine that he liked her hair in a major motion picture. Those moments felt both seminal and groundbreaking, and I told DuVernay as much during our chat. She confirmed that it was very much something she paid special attention to.
"In the book, the character of Meg, who's a Caucasian girl, doesn't like her hair — she thinks her hair is frizzy and ugly," DuVernay says. "So I imagined if Meg is an African-American girl, what would be her issues around hair? I tried to take that into a 2018 mind frame with a different kind of Meg. So it's the same intention that Madeleine L'Engle had, that this girl is awkward and uncomfortable with the way that she looks, but I put a different cultural perspective on it. I think those scenes are really powerful, just to have the validation that what grows out of your head in the way that it does is something you can accept."
So, yes, the tears were indeed flowing and emotions high as I watched this film through the eyes of my 13-year-old self. I was breathless as I witnessed Meg find her way through DuVernay's interpretations of these dreamed up worlds, from the planet of Uriel's rolling green hills and fanciful flowers to Camazotz, the dark-and-eerie home of all things evil — in search of her father, but also herself. She gets some help from the three Mrs: The worldly, quote-loving Mrs. Who, played endearingly by Mindy Kaling; the energetic, wide-eyed Mrs. Whatsit, perfectly portrayed by Reese Witherspoon, and Mrs. Which, the all-knowing mother of wisdom who was basically made for Oprah Winfrey to play.
With their guidance and some hard-learned lessons about believing in herself, Meg blossoms throughout the two-hour tale from a gawky, self-doubting pre-teen to a fearless, badass warrior who can fight darkness with goodness and light. By the end of the story, my heart soared with so much pride for both Meg and Storm that I cheered; after two hours, I felt incredibly invested in and connected to her character. As the credits rolled, I started to feel nostalgic — sad, almost. I had to wonder how my life might have been different if, as a 13-year-old uncool outcast, I had had a movie like this version of A Wrinkle In Time to watch for daily inspiration. At 30, I'm pretty confident and self-assured, but it took me a long time (and many, many hours in the bathroom detangling my big head of curly hair) to learn to love my faults. With this version of A Wrinkle In Time at my fingertips, though — and a young Black Meg soaking up messages about using her faults to guide her — I may have found the courage to shake off my haters and hold my head up high much, much earlier.
Alas, my days as a tween are far behind me. Still, even though I'm now more than twice Meg Murry and Storm Reid's ages, this Meg Murry was someone my 13-year-old self was still craving to see. So beyond the dazzling visuals and irresistible whimsy of A Wrinkle In Time, I believe the most important part of this film is its existence. Because thanks DuVernay and her team, no matter who you are, you will see a little bit of yourself reflected here. And even if you don't, the knowledge that young brown girls can finally, finally see that for themselves is reason to celebrate enough.
A Wrinkle In Time Is In Theaters March 9th. Watch our interview with DuVernay and Reid below.