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A Wrinkle in Time, Film Criticism and White Liberal Paternalism

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Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes 58 seconds

The Disney film, A Wrinkle in Time, opened two weeks ago amid much media fawning because it is the first film with a budget of over $100 million to be directed by an African-American woman (Ava DuVernay). The film also stars a who's who of big time stars like Oprah, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling and Chris Pine along with a diverse group of fresh-faced young newcomers.

The film is based upon the classic children's book, A Wrinkle in Time written by Madeleine L'Engle. In the lead up to the release of the film, Disney put on a full court publicity blitz by Oprah and director DuVernay, touting how the film was a beacon of diversity in casting. The book A Wrinkle in Time is about a young White girl and is populated by White people, but Oprah and Duvernay's version stars a young African-American girl and actors of color are throughout the cast. Because of the diversity/inclusion casting and the symbolic politics of the movie, the media generated a lot of positive buzz leading up to A Wrinkle in Time's opening. 

Of the plethora of pre-release pieces of marketing, the one that stood out to me most was a softball interview/fluff info-adver-tainment piece by the New York Times with Ms. DuVernay. When I read the article, which was meant to be a completely and totally supportive bit of kiss-ass journalism by the esteemed paper of record, I was shocked at how unlikable Ms. DuVernay came across and how completely oblivious to it she and the Times both were. 

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After reading that article and Ms. DuVernay's accompanying tone-deafness and seeing the God-awful trailer, I was not surprised in the least that upon release A Wrinkle in Time absolutely bombed. Reviewers were gently negative but audiences disliked the film with a vigor. Watching the Rotten Tomato "Tomato Meter" of the movie over opening weekend, which started at a "really want to see it" 99, drop so precipitously, was like watching the stock market in late October of 1929. After the first weekend in theaters, A Wrinkle in Time had landed at 40 on the critic side and 34 on the audience side of the Tomato Meter, which gave the film a solidly "Rotten" rating, but all things considered, I was actually surprised it wasn't worse.

THE BIGOTRY OF LOW EXPECTATIONS

Since I never had any interest in seeing A Wrinkle in Time, I decided to read some reviews of the film so I went back to Rotten Tomatoes because it lists and links reviews from professional film critics. I went through and read a bunch of reviews from critics that gave the movie a "fresh" rating and what struck me is that they all gushed about everything surrounding the film, like its wonderful diversity and how "important" it was culturally that it was directed by an African-American woman, but once you got past that stuff the written reviews were actually very negative in regards to the storytelling and skill and craft on display in the movie. And yet, despite this, when it came time to rate the film with a letter grade or number of stars, the reviewers all elevated the film to a positive grade/stars which seemed at odds with what they had written about the actual movie in the body of their review. 

For example, Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post wrote, " “A Wrinkle in Time” is plagued by the same convoluted leaps and hurried lack of logic...in L’Engle’s original book. At a time when movies are almost uniformly too long, this is one film that could have benefited from a few more scenes to pump up Meg’s backstory, solidify the emotional stakes and smooth out transitions that are jagged at best, nonsensical at worst." Despite this rather clear-cut criticism Ms. Hornaday rated the film 3 out of 4 stars. 

Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "The sheer exuberance of this movie can provoke more than a few seemingly discordant reactions, sometimes in the same instance...I found myself wishing that this "Wrinkle" were more focused, more disciplined — that its ceaseless flow of fantastical images cohered into a revelatory new application of L'Engle's themes and insights, rather than an earnest, sometimes awkward reiteration of them." Mr. Chang gave the film a "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

David Fear's Rolling Stone review stated, "This Wrinkle in Time is undoubtedly flawed, wildly uneven, and apt to tie itself in narrative knots in a quest to wow you with sheer technicolor weirdness." In spite of Fear's obvious misgivings about the movie, he gave it 3 out of 4 stars anyway. He also tips his hand as to why he and other critics do so later in his review when he writes, "It's worth seeing just to bask in a film that does ask for inclusion on such a grand scale…"

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The question then becomes, why would reviewers bump up their grade for a film they thought wasn't very well made? I believe the reason they did it is that they want the film to succeed because it touts diversity/inclusion and for what it symbolizes politically and culturally in regards to race and gender. These reviewers increased their ratings for the film because they did not want A Wrinkle in Time to end up with a "Rotten" score on Rotten Tomatoes. They also did it because it was a cheap way to virtue signal and they were afraid they might be labelled a racist if they were critical of a pro-diversity/inclusion film directed by a Black woman. 

BLACK PANTHER AND RUNNING UP THE SCORE

This sort of critical liberal paternalism and its accompanying grading curve that reviewers used to give A Wrinkle in Time a boost, also seems to be in effect for another film directed by an African-American and starring African-American actors, Black Panther. Black Panther is by all accounts a significantly better film than A Wrinkle in Time, and yet it seems to have also benefited from the same politically/racially motivated grading curve.

Black Panther has been absolutely adored by critics, proof of this is that the film currently has an impressive 97 critical score on Rotten Tomatoes. Now, people can have different opinions of a film, so I don't chalk up critics liking Black Panther to solely a political agenda, but if you look at the Rotten Tomato statistics, it certainly seems that HOW MUCH critics liked Black Panther is a result of a political/racial agenda and the aforementioned grading curve. 

Evidence of this is that according to the Rotten Tomato critical score, Black Panther isn't just the highest rated film in the Marvel Cinematic canon, it is the highest rated superhero movie of all time. According to the critical score, Black Panther is even better than The Dark Knight (94 critical rating), which most cinematically literate people consider to be a super hero masterpiece, proof of which is that it is the film whose exclusion from the Oscar Best Picture nominations in 2008, led to the Academy Awards actually changing the nominating process and doubling the amount of films in the Best Picture category. 

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Where things get interesting in this discussion about Black Panther is when you look at the audience score. While critics have it rated as the greatest superhero film of all time at 97, audiences scored the film at a much more tepid, and frankly rational, 79. That 79 audience score places Black Panther in the bottom half of the films in the Marvel cinematic canon according to audiences, with only Iron Man 2 (72), Iron Man 3 (78), Incredible Hulk (71), Thor (76) and Thor: Dark World (77) rating lower. Of the 19 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, 12 are ranked higher by audiences than Black Panther, and that is just Marvel. Wonder Woman (88), Logan (90), Deadpool (90), X-Men (83), X-Men 2: X-Men United (85), X-Men: First Class (87), X-Men: Days of Future Past (91) along with the entire Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy (94,94,90 respectively) all have a higher audience score than Black Panther. Those Rotten Tomato statistics show that something is obviously askew when it comes to critics opinion of Black Panther versus audiences opinion in the context of the other Marvel  and other superhero films.

Another Rotten Tomato data point that is intriguing is that Black Panther has the widest margin between its critical score and its audience score of all the Marvel films and super hero films of recent years that were rated "Fresh".

Black Panther's critical score of 97, and audience score of 79, makes for a spread of -18. The next super hero film with the closest negative critical/audience score spread is Captain America: First Avenger with a -6. It is pretty striking that Black Panther's negative critical/audience spread is 3 x higher than the next superhero film with a negative spread. The average negative critical/audience score spread of the ten Marvel films eligible is -4.3.

Another intriguing tidbit is that among the eight Marvel films with a positive critic/audience spread (audience score is higher than the critical score), the average spread is +4.5, with the highest spreads being Thor: Dark World at +11 and Avengers: Age of Ultron at +8. 

In analyzing all of this data the thing that really sticks out is that Black Panther is a total outlier in terms of the spread between its critical and audience scores. Why is that?

My thesis regarding the Black Panther Rotten Tomato anomalies is the same as my thesis regarding A Wrinkle in Time's odd dichotomy between written reviews and the grade given…namely that critics scored these two films on a curve in order to elevate their Rotten Tomato scores due to the racial and/or gender politics associated with both films. In other words, critics graded these films not on their cinematic and artistic merits, but on their racial and gender politics.

Another factor may be that professional film critics are grading a film publicly, while amateur Rotten Tomato "reviewers" can share their opinion in relative obscurity and anonymity. When people can hide behind relative anonymity they are much freer to give more honest views in regards to a movie and have no need to virtue signal out of fear of being ostracized over racism charges.

It is difficult to come to any clear cut mathematical answer without diving into Rotten Tomatoes specific formula, but my best guess is that Black Panther received a rating boost equivalent to half a grade/star higher due to this racially motivated grading curve. I also believe that A Wrinkle in Time received a grading curve boost of at least a full star higher than it merited due to the same reasons.

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If Black Panther had not gotten the extra half a grade/star boost, it would fall from a 97 critical score to a critical score of about 83, which would leave it within the margin of an average spread between critical score and audience score for a typical Marvel film (-4.3). It is much more difficult to mathematically figure what A Wrinkle in Time's critical score would be without this grading curve because there are no films with which to compare it, but it seems likely that minus the full grade/star boost, A Wrinkle in Time would have received a much lower score, most likely in the range of 20 or even lower.

FAILING UPWARDS IN THE AGE OF IDENTITY POLITICS

A remarkable note about the failure of A Wrinkle in Time is that as the film has flopped, its director Ava DuVernay has been given the keys to another big-budget project, the Warner Brothers/DC film New Gods. What makes this all the more striking is that A Wrinkle in Time hasn't just flopped with critics (regardless of inflated ratings) or audiences, but financially. A Wrinkle in Time had a budget of over $100 million and when you add in marketing costs and account for theater's share of the cut, the film needs to break the $250 million barrier JUST TO BREAK EVEN. That goal seems like a very long shot at this point in time, which is why it is so bizarre that WB/DC would jump at the chance to work with Ms. DuVernay at this moment of her epic blockbuster failure. 

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Emblematic of the "leg up" program and the accompanying climate of political correctness swirling around A Wrinkle in Time and Ms. DuVernay like a cloud of protective, truth repelling dust, The Atlantic had an article by David Sims about New Gods and DuVernay's hiring that revealed an even greater amount of disingenuous spin than the inflated critical Rotten Tomato scores do. In the piece, Sims distorts reality and brazenly and shamelessly lies in order to make the signing of DuVernay to direct New Gods seem like a masterful coup for the brain trust of WB/DC. 

In the opening line of the piece Sims writes, "Last year, the critical and financial calamity of Justice League served as a bit of a wake up call...". Later in the piece Sims writes of DuVernay's A Wrinkle in Time, "That film debuted this month to mixed reviews and solid, but unspectacular box office; though hardly a catastrophe". 

Let's unravel Mr. Sims shameless spin shall we. He deems Justice League a "critical and financial calamity", but A Wrinkle in Time "hardly a catastrophe". The facts are that Justice League has a Rotten Tomato critical score of…40, the exact same critical score of the alleged "mixed reviews" of A Wrinkle in Time. In addition, A Wrinkle in Time has a Rotten Tomato audience score of only 34, while Justice League has a Rotten Tomato audience score of…76. So Justice League nearly doubles A Wrinkle in Time's audience score while sharing the same critical score and Sims deems it a "calamity" while dubbing A Wrinkle in Time's reviews "mixed" and the film overall as "not a catastrophe".

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Adding to the damning case proving Mr. Sims' sycophancy is his claim that Justice League was a "financial calamity" while A Wrinkle in Time was "not catastrophic" with a "solid, but unspectacular box office".  On Justice League's opening weekend in November 2017, it was the top grossing film, raking in $94 million domestically. By contrast, A Wrinkle in Time did not even win its opening weekend, coming in second place to Black Panther in its fourth week of release, and only took in a meager $33 million. After two weeks in theaters Justice League's box office take was $135 million domestically, while after A Wrinkle in Time's fourth place finish in week two, its box office now sits at an anemic $49 million. Justice League's final box office tally was $658 million worldwide, a number which A Wrinkle in Time won't even come close to sniffing. And yet, in Mr. Sims eyes, A Wrinkle in Time is not a "catastrophe" but Justice League is a "calamity". Is it me or does Mr. Sims have an agenda, and do the facts prove him to be torturing the truth and the English language in order to celebrate Ava DuVernay getting a job even in the midst of her big-budget film proving itself to be an absolute disaster. Mr. Sims is guilty of being full of shit, and his diminishing of Justice League and elevating A Wrinkle in Time, is proof of that.

Now, is Justice League a great film? No, it isn't. It was the least financially successful of all the current DC films and was poorly reviewed, but by every possible metric, including Rotten Tomato audience ratings and at the box office, it is far superior to A Wrinkle in Time. Mr. Sims is committing the same sin in his article that critics did in scoring A Wrinkle in Time, they are playing identity politics and embracing diversity and inclusion at the expense of talent, skill and integrity, and that should be to their great shame. 

DC hiring Ms. DuVernay to direct New Gods flies in the face of all rational business and artistic sense. Ms. DuVernay is a not an unknown, she is a known quality now and THE BIG BUDGET FILM SHE JUST DIRECTED IS AN UNMITIGATED DISASTER

Unlike DuVernay, Black Panther director Ryan Coogler has proven twice that he can direct financially successful franchise films, first with Creed and secondly with Black Panther, so handing him the keys to a big budget film is an absolute no brainer (as was the decision to let him direct Black Panther due to his success with Creed). Ms. DuVernay getting another shot at a big budget when she has so egregiously screwed up a potential big money maker, is absurd and portends Hollywood's irrational swing towards a more diverse but less talented and less deserving crop of filmmakers. 

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Think of it this way, Hollywood should be a bottom line business similar to the NBA, where it doesn't matter the race, religion or ethnicity of the people involved, only that they are the very best at what they do. Would we tolerate some NBA team adding less skilled or less talented players to their roster just to quench some thirst for diversity and inclusion? Of course not, so why are film critics pushing for it and why is Hollywood doing it? The end result will ultimately be a watering down of the quality of cinema and a thinning of box office receipts. Exhibit A - see A Wrinkle in Time.

BLACK WASHING AND CULTURAL APPROPRIATION

One final thought regarding A Wrinkle in Time, as previously stated the film makes changes to the the book by diversifying the cast and also removing the Christianity in favor of a New Age self-help viewpoint. What struck me regarding the inclusive casting was the silence from the media over the film not being true to the original source material. Over the last few years there has been a great deal of controversy when White actors were cast in roles that were minorities in the original source material or roles where White actors played minorities. This is called Whitewashing and the more infamous recent examples of it have been committed by Emma Stone in Aloha, Scarlett Johannsen in Ghost in the Machine, Ed Skrien In Hellboy and Tilda Swinton in Dr. Strange. Why wasn't there a similar outrage over A Wrinkle in Time "Blackwashing" roles that were originally White in the book? The hypocrisy over this issue is staggering but not the least bit surprising. 

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Another bit of hypocrisy is that there has been a lot of talk about "cultural appropriation" in recent years. It usually revolves around some dopey White guy with dreadlocks, but it also dives into wider and more substantial matters as well, but it is always a charge leveled against White people. But the fact is that Ms. DuVernay just "culturally appropriated" a book written by a White woman and populated by White characters and replaced the White people with people of color. Why is there not an outrage over that? Look, I understand that Ms. Duvernay wanted to make an inclusive film with a diverse cast and she has every right to do that and good for her, but if you want to make an uplifting, New Age, spiritual sci-fi film with a multi-cultural cast…THEN WRITE AN ORIGINAL STORY, don't alter a classic book just to satiate your diversity desires. 

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The source material for Black Panther and A Wrinkle in Time were both written in the same time frame, the 1960's. Would it be acceptable if a White director decided to make a version of Black Panther with a mostly White cast? No…people would freak out about that, and rightfully so. So why does that same standard not apply to A Wrinkle in Time and Ava DuVernay? Not only was that film not held to account for its Blackwashing, the media orgasmically celebrated it for doing so. 

I understand the counter argument that White people have dominated this culture since it began, and so they need to be held to account when they Whitewash or culturally appropriate…but those arguments hold no water when the rules do not apply to everyone across the board. If you try and demand a separate set of rules for different types of people, you will only end up scuttling your own argument upon the jagged rocks of hypocrisy. 

In conclusion, I think it is fairly obvious that film critics are soft pedaling their negative views of A Wrinkle in Time because it is directed by a Black woman and has an "important" message of diversity and inclusion. I also think it is obvious, and statistically provable, that positive reviews of Black Panther were padded because it was directed by an African-American man and had an overwhelmingly Black cast. Some people may think that this sort of behavior by critics, motivated by the dogma of identity politics, is acceptable or even noble, but I find it to be condescending and repugnant. I believe it is, in its own way, a form of insidiously paternalistic racism that will ultimately have negative consequences not only for the art of cinema, but for all filmmakers of color. 

UPDATE 3/24/18: An interesting article from Romesh Ranganathan in The Guardian that in a round about way, and probably unintentionally, buttresses my point about how when a film becomes about "diversity" (as opposed to being about its story) it clouds critical judgement and ultimately undermines the movie.

©2018