When Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle in Time” hits theaters later this week, the multi-million dollar Disney feature will put a contemporary face on the beloved Madeleine L’Engle’s novel that spawned a sprawling series of books in the author’s so-called Time Quintet. Populated by a large cast of diverse talents, including young star Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, and Mindy Kaling, it’s a film that pays homage to the source material while also placing it squarely inside a forward-moving cultural space.
While the last (and only) other on-screen adaptation of the 1962 novel cast young protagonist Meg Murry as a white tween, it was essential to DuVernay that her film reflect a modern and diverse world. Her Murry clan includes Reid as daughter Meg, along with Chris Pine as patriarch Alex, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as mom Kate, and young Deric McCabe as baby brother Charles Wallace (in this incarnation, an adopted addition to the fam).
For Mbatha-Raw, the decision to join the cast of the film was an easy one – “When I signed up, I think the only people that were 100% confirmed were Oprah and Storm,” she said with a laugh, a pairing that made it of a no-brainer – and the British actress joined a wide group of talents, both new and established, to the bring L’Engle’s kids classic to life.
Like Mbatha-Raw, movie Meg comes from a biracial background. It’s not something she’s used to seeing. “It’s a really exciting moment and I think it’s a step in the right direction in terms of big studios accepting and celebrating and reflecting the world that we live in,” Mbatha-Raw said.
“I think it’s so exciting to have Storm Reid at the center of this film,” she added. “When I was growing up there weren’t any films really, certainly big Disney films, with young girls that look like myself or Storm as the heroine.”
“A Wrinkle in Time” also offered the actress a chance to continue her streak of working with women directors. The actress was first introduced to domestic audiences through her work on films like Amma Asante’s “Belle” and Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “Beyond the Lights” (the pair are reteaming on an upcoming adaptation of Roxanne Gay’s “An Untamed State”), and out of nearly 20 feature film appearances, Mbatha-Raw has worked with nine female film directors. That’s still a rarity in Hollywood.
“It’s not like I’ve deliberately gone out and ‘I’m only going to work with female directors,’ but certainly for me, early on with things like ‘Belle’ and ‘Beyond the Lights,’ it was about point of view,” the actress said. “I think those filmmakers were the only ones telling the story that was putting a character that looks like me at the center.”
Still, she’s eager to move beyond the kind of labels that are still applied to female directors exclusively on the basis of their gender. That includes DuVernay, who made headlines just for signing on for “Wrinkle,” the first $100M-plus live-action film to be directed by a woman of color.
“I think, culturally, it’s incredibly significant,” she said. “I’m excited to get to the point when we’re just talking about the director Ava DuVernay, and we don’t necessarily keep qualifying ‘black female director.’ She’s just a ‘director,’ and that’s where we’re heading. To me, it’s just the director at this point.”
The culture is changing, and the studio system doesn’t appear to be too far behind. “A Wrinkle in Time” arrives in theaters just weeks after Disney opened Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther,” another massive tentpole directed by a person of color, and one that smashed just about every record it could.
“It’s a culmination of the evolution of our culture,” Mbatha-Raw said. “The studios are starting to pay more attention, with films like ‘Black Panther’ that actually are a huge hit at the box office. It’s undeniable that these films really do make money, and there is an audience to see diverse, big movies.”
To Mbatha-Raw, that the two films are hitting theaters so close to each other is important, but she’s more enthused by the fact that the films are quite different.
“I think it’s definitely a cultural shift,” she said. “‘Wrinkle’ is a different genre, it has the fantasy and the spiritual element to it, and it’s not trying to be cool or tough. It’s definitely a family film about love.”
It’s also a film about the kind of kids that are changing the world, the ones pushing those same cultural shifts that Mbatha-Raw can finally see making their way into the kind of films she would loved to see as a kid.
“The youth have so much power in our world today,” Mbatha-Raw said. “I think it’s incredibly relevant with everything that’s been going on in the news. Young people have a voice. Young people have power. You have to stand up for what you believe in.”
Disney will release “A Wrinkle in Time” in theaters and IMAX on March 9.