Ava DuVernay's film adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 children’s novel “A Wrinkle in Time” makes its intentions clear in virtually every image, word of dialogue, and note of its soundtrack. Being the first African-American woman to be handed the reigns of a major studio project, DuVernay seems to have been determined to deliver the quintessential validating, empowering cinematic experience for a modern audience of young black girls.
Key to that experience is providing a cast that reflects, that represents, the audience. In 2018, the family at the center of this story is no longer of an unspecified racial (but presumably white) background. Meg Murray (Storm Reid), the film's 14-year-old heroine who is struggling with self-image and identity as well as the mysterious disappearance of her father, is also bi-racial and a member of a multi-racial family: white physicist father Alex Murray (Chris Pine), black scientist mother Kate Murry (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and adopted Hispanic younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe).
When a trio of magical beings from another dimension appear to help Meg find her dad, they, too, manifest in multi-cultural. multi-racial, and disappointingly familiar human form: Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, and a colossal, two-story Oprah Winfrey as Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, respectively, offering inspirational quotes from the likes of Rumi and Winston Churchill and exhorting timid Meg to "Be a warrior!"
Those exhortations are reinforced throughout by a multicultural collection of soundtrack artists. Chloe x Halle echo Oprah's command with their soundtrack contribution, "Warrior": "I could be a warrior/ Yes, I am a warrior," and DJ Khaled and Demi Levato invoke a kind of aspirational mantra, repeating, "I can, I can, I will, I will / I am, I am, no fear, no fear."
Even the sets, at least in the early earthbound scenes, are packed with images--photos, posters--of inspirational African American figures, including Maya Angelou and James Baldwin (used to comic visual effect when Charles Wallace visits the principal's office).
The message seems to be that a woman—young or ancient, of any color—can save the world, even the universe, by believing in herself.
It's undeniably a worthy message, but it's relentless reiteration threatens to eclipse the film's other elements, including plot (visits to other dimensions feel more like sight-seeing than sortie) and characterization (Mrs. Murray and Meg's fellow traveler Calvin O'Keefe barely make an impression).
In the film, as in the novel,, Meg's father has been imprisoned by the source of all evil, something known only as IT, located on a planet in another dimension, Camazotz, over which it wields complete control and from which it is relentlessly extending its dark influence throughout all planes of existence, including Earth. DuVernay's film offers a relatively faithful glimpse of Camazotz, as described in L’Engle’s novel. Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin O'Keefe (Levi Miller) descend to what looks like a suburban cul-de-sac filled with tract homes, pruned trees, and children bouncing balls in clean, uncluttered drives. They\ visitors notice that the balls all bounce in sync to a rhythm emanating from IT until the blank-faced children are called in to dinner simultaneously by nearly identical mothers.
DuVernay abandons the scene abruptly as Meg and co. are ushered on to other, more threatening scenes.
For L’Engle, however, this scene is the threat, the relentless, insinuating influence of the powerful in determining what is best for the rest of us. In the novel, IT posits that such uniformity and conformity will put an end to all war and suffering.
One can't help but be haunted by this scene as Meg and her companions, as well as the audience, are subjected to wave upon wave of the best-intentioned, well-meaning indoctrination.
All of this insistent encouragement begins to feel a bit like coercion, leaving Storm Reid's Meg little to do but passively follow on a journey which should be hers. It's a puzzling and dispiriting consequence for a movie so laudably devoted to liberating young viewers.