Hints that Disney did not expect A Wrinkle in Time to be a world-dominating hit started appearing a few weeks ago — signs and portents that were pored over by the journalists and industry observers following along online. Advanced screenings of the film seemed more selective and sparse than usual. The embargo, the time frame for running reviews that critics have to agree to in order to go to those screenings, was late, a day and a half before the movie started playing in theaters, which generally suggests that the studio did not expect those reviews to be glowing. Online reactions after the glitzy premiere screening struck some as muted — not negative (which would have been rare at a premiere) so much as absent, as if people were reluctant to share how they felt.
But the most telling indications that Wrinkle was a risky release, rather than a guaranteed blockbuster, came from Ava DuVernay herself. The filmmaker responsible for Oscar nominees Selma and 13th had been pursued by Disney to adapt Madeleine L'Engle’s 1962 science-fiction novel for the big screen, reimagining the story's heroine, Meg Murry, as a biracial girl played by relative unknown Storm Reid.
In interviews, DuVernay acknowledged the history she was making, but also referenced Hollywood's own history of taking risks on and giving multiple chances to certain white male directors, while tending to give women — especially women of color — one shot, presuming they're given a shot at all. While someone like Guy Ritchie has been able to go from having two sizable box office bombs in a row to getting hired to direct the live-action remake of Aladdin, women like Mimi Leder and Karyn Kusama were consigned to "movie jail" after their own flops, spending years trying to get follow-ups funded and their careers back on track.
DuVernay is the first black woman to direct a live-action movie with a $100 million–plus budget, and she tends to talk about the opportunity as the kind that might very easily be denied to her in the future — and one that easily could have never come along at all. As someone who worked for years in marketing and PR before moving into filmmaking, she's seen the industry ebb and flow, and is clearly trying to carve out a place for herself in its shifting narrative.
In February, she pointed out to the Washington Post that while she and Colin Trevorrow both had films at Sundance in 2012, he went on Jurassic World and then (though he's no longer attached) the next Star Wars movie. Until she was approached by Disney, DuVernay went "from that to Selma, and there is nothing else on the horizon? That didn’t feel good, and that had me in a depressed place." In March, she told the Associated Press, "I want to do as much as I can do when I can. It's not unreasonable, you know? Tomorrow they can say, 'No we don't want you to make movies anymore.'" She declared to the New York Times that she didn't care what anyone thought of the film she got to make: "I know it’s $100 million for the studio. They’ll be fine."
They — Disney, one of the biggest corporate forces in entertainment — will of course be fine, but that was never really the issue here. If A Wrinkle in Time, an eccentric children's fantasy that's neither animated, a remake of an animated film, or part of an existing franchise, was a risk, then DuVernay was making sure to get it on the record that bouncing back from risks that don’t pan out has been a privilege allotted to a particular demographic. Beyond stating facts, she was, in effect, issuing a challenge: Is Hollywood ready to let a black woman direct a big movie that's not an incontestable hit without it crushing her career — or, at least, setting it back years?
DuVernay's own television series Queen Sugar has made a point to hire a slate of directors made up entirely of women, many women of color, some of whom have gone for long stretches between features. In that Post profile, she runs through her own contingency plan in case studios stop greenlighting her projects — “If they won’t let me make films at a certain point, I can still make them indie. If I can’t make films, I’ll make TV. If I can’t make TV, I’ll do commercials. I’ll do the installation at the Smithsonian. I’ll do the Prada ad."
Is Hollywood ready to let a black woman direct a big movie that's not an incontestable hit without it crushing her career?
In its opening weekend, A Wrinkle in Time has turned out to be neither a home run nor a bomb. Reviews have been mixed and, with $33.3 million, it came in second at the box office to the unstoppable force that is Black Panther, another Disney release. It was both a milestone — two black-directed movies topping the charts — and what amounted to a softer opening than the studio likely hoped for a movie with a $103 million budget. Unless A Wrinkle in Time turns out to have The Greatest Showman–style staying power (and who knows!) the chances are that it will not be a money loser or a runaway financial success, but something in between.
Not that you would know this from the online discourse, which has been ferocious over the past weekend. DuVernay's film, with its diverse cast and affirmation-filled storyline, has become a cultural flashpoint, with accusations of bad faith flying in all directions (and from some other studio filmmakers). On Thursday, Fox News ran a piece awash with anticipatory schadenfreude headlined "Oprah's ultra-PC Wrinkle in Time stung with bad reviews as ‘cringeworthy’ $100M Disney movie could bomb, experts say." The day before, Marie Claire ran a backhanded compliment of a nonreview proclaiming that "A Wrinkle in Time Isn't a Great Movie, But That's Completely Irrelevant." On Twitter, some people shrugged off criticism as the products of haters and bigots while others accused fans of the film of virtue signaling.
The heated debate extended to box office coverage, as people on social media argued about whether reporting that the film came in second to Black Panther was business as usual or just a way of pitting POC filmmakers against one another; one viral tweet insisted, though it did not turn out to be the case, that new estimates showed Wrinkle in Time making over $10 million more than originally reported. On Rotten Tomatoes and on IMDb (whose user base is particularly prone to downvote titles that deal with themes of race, gender, and sexuality), audience ratings are noticeably polarized, one star or five, 1/10 or 10/10 — less statements of opinion than declarations of alignment in a larger conversation that's been going on since long before the movie was announced.
The fact that almost none of this discussion has been about watching the film itself also seems to speak to our current moment, in which the idea of A Wrinkle in Time as a milestone in either representation or political correctness has overwhelmed its existence as a piece of art or entertainment. The actual substance of A Wrinkle in Time — as something both ambitious and clunky, sweet and cloying, wrestling tricky source material into something alternately stunning and befuddling on screen, and looking refreshingly little like the usual kiddie fare — has gotten downplayed (even, I am agonizingly aware, in the piece you're currently reading). Which is maybe inevitable at a time in which buying a ticket to see something has been stressed, not incorrectly, as a kind of political act, but still manages to be disheartening. It is its own act of erasure, the cinematic experience drowned out by the industry noise.
Every time there's a hit movie featuring a woman director or cast of color or a female lead or any other development indicative of Hollywood's slow push toward inclusivity, it's also felt like we've had to relitigate a point that's been made before, and by now has become well-known — that there are audiences for these movies, and that they should be made. A Wrinkle in Time doesn't need to serve as a test case for whether films directed by black women, and with black leads, can be successes, because of course they can. We've known that forever, even if the industry is still, slowly, catching up.
What's more important, now, is whether A Wrinkle in Time can be allowed to be something other than an overwhelming hit without being weaponized against DuVernay, and through her, against whole demographics of filmmakers and audiences. DuVernay told BuzzFeed News that she aspires to have the kind of genre-hopping career of directors like Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann, Ridley Scott, and Ron Howard: "If you want it, you’ve got to take big swings. So that’s what I’m trying to do." Big swings mean you don't always connect — which is fine, so long as you're not confined to a single at-bat. ●