My Facebook feed had been lit up with negative commentary on the 2014 “Annie” movie remake. Going online to read reviews, I saw more dissent. The commenters raised an obvious point: “When we finally get a black ‘Annie,’ she’s illiterate.” I was offended as well. How could the producers be so insensitive to black children? Why did they have to make the black Annie illiterate?
Black pride aside, my 15-year-old daughter was not letting up on her quest to see “Annie” 2.0 as a family. Yes, I did attempt to get her to see it solo, while her father and I went to see Chris Rock’s “Top Five.” I was not very interested in seeing “Annie Goes Hip-Hop,” and after reading that the new, black Annie was reimagined as a child unable to read or write, I was even less thrilled, so much so that I considered making my daughter wait to see it on video. I was taking a stand.
But my daughter was not having it. I have myself to blame: We have our annual holiday-family-movie tradition, in particular our ritual viewing of “Annie.” We went to see the movie the day after Christmas.
Our family consensus:
• Original movies are better than remakes. Period.
• Cameron Diaz has a grating voice, and the actress who plays the new Annie, Quvenzhané Wallis, doesn’t have a remarkable voice either. But she has the cute factor that still won us over. Both actresses were fantastic in their roles, notwithstanding their singing.
• There was less hip-hop than we feared. But original songs are still better than remakes, at least most of the time.
And after giving it more thought from my position as an educator and researcher working in urban school systems (and not just a parent), I concluded: Making the character of Annie—in particular, 2014 poor, black Annie—illiterate was absolutely the right choice.
In analyzing National Assessment of Educational Progress data from 2013 on reading proficiency in 4th grade (about the grade of 10-year-old Annie), the statistics are grim. Any way you slice it, American children are not doing too well, regardless of race or income. Only 46 percent of white children, and 51 percent of children of Asian/Pacific Islander descent scored proficient or above in 4th grade NAEP reading. Let that sink in.
Contrary to The Hunger Games mantra, to cite another favorite in our family viewing—and reading—pantheon, the odds of 4th graders’ reading at grade level are not in their favor, regardless of race. When you consider that only 51 percent of students who do not qualify for free or reduced-price lunch read at or above proficiency, it’s pretty easy to reach the conclusion that American public schools, by and large, are failing our children.
That was the good news.
Any way you slice it, American children are not doing too well, regardless of race or income.”
Now let’s turn to poor, black Annie. Nationwide, among all black children completing the 2013 NAEP 4th grade reading assessment, only 17 percent performed at or above proficiency. You might be thinking, “Hold on! Poor, black Annie was from New York City, and the New York City school system has been performing better than the national averages.” You would be correct. In fact, 21 percent of Annie’s black peers (poor or not) performed at or above proficiency there.
Lest we get excited, there is still the painful reality that 79 percent of black 4th graders in New York City do not read at grade level (nor do 83 percent of black 4th graders nationwide), and that’s without taking poverty into consideration.
A report in July from the New York City Independent Budget Office on that city’s public schools highlights that more than 80 percent of its 4th grade public school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Historical data are clear: Children living in poverty have even lower proficiency rates than their peers of the same race who are not poor. This does not bode well for the academic health of our students in New York or elsewhere.
So poor, black Annie decidedly has the chips stacked against her even without being a ward of the state, living in subpar conditions, and dealing with an alcoholic foster parent. Making poor, black, foster-child Annie a skilled reader, without a high-quality school or community-support system, would have been too incredible for anything but a fantasy storyline.
My favorite scene in “Annie” 2.0 occurred in the last two minutes, when Daddy Stacks (formerly Daddy Warbucks) cuts the ribbon on his new literacy center. In addition to the need for significant investments to increase the number of quality classroom seats available to poor, black Annie and, disproportionately, her black and Latino peers (though, remember, no child is sitting pretty here), business owners and community leaders must also invest their dollars and their influence in community initiatives tied to helping schools.
Efforts are desperately needed to help combat the years of poor schooling and the dearth of community resources that Annie and her cohort have experienced. I’ve read that Jay-Z does a lot of low-profile philanthropy work. I’m hopeful that some of that work is around increasing literacy for all of the poor, black Annies living the “hard-knock life.” They could sure use the help.
A version of this article appeared in the February 25, 2015 edition of Education Week as Poor, Black, and Illiterate: Annie’s Hard-Knock Life