With Mrs. Who Dropping Lines from Outkast, Rumi, and Chris Tucker, 'A Wrinkle in Time' Widens the Canon of Whom We Consider Quotable
It has only been a week since the release of Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, and yet we’ve already received an onslaught of takes, from the jubilance and adoration from Kristy’s review here at Pajiba, which I mostly share, to the more judgmental, myopic view of people like Jeff Sneider, who showed his ass regarding “identity politics” and “younger critics” and blah blah blah. Kayleigh (who also wrote this great piece on A Wrinkle in Time and female earnestness) rightfully pointed out why he was so wrong, so I’ll let her handle this one:
I could get into the issues with how this myopic mindset ignores the intersections of culture & politics & how it maligns already marginalised voices, but mostly this stuff leads to fucking dull film criticism. pic.twitter.com/xmSsK2E9U8— Kayleigh Donaldson (@Ceilidhann) March 7, 2018
Ultimately there are three camps here: the group of people who were going to hate on A Wrinkle in Time regardless, fueled by racism or sexism or whatever other crap; the people with whom the film resonated, whether it was through their own childhood affection for the book by Madeline L’Engle, their (rightful) joy at seeing themselves represented onscreen, or because they are kids, the target audience for this movie in the first place; and a group of people who loved the book and thought the film was so-so.
I’ve had a lot of discussions with childhood frends who fall into the final group, and we’re in our early 30s. We’re not the target audience for this movie anyway. But I remember really enjoying L’Engle’s book when I was a kind of spacey, vaguely grumpy, interested-in-science brown girl, and I embrace DuVernay’s film as an energetic update of a story that needed broadening. Which is where I arrive at Mindy Kaling’s Mrs. Who, a character that I think is key in understanding the triumphs of DuVernay’s update and the insistence of Ava and screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell that diversity should not only be reflected in the biracial Meg Murry or the adopted Charles Wallace, but in the very philosophers, artists, and great thinkers who Mrs. Which, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Whatsit reference in their encouragement of the Murry siblings and Calvin.
I grew up Muslim, and although as a child I didn’t really realize how much L’Engle’s Christian faith informed her writing, I do recall thinking more than once, “Huh, this is a lot of Jesus talk.” And a lot of that comes from Mrs. Who, a celestial being who chooses to speak mostly through the quotations of others, often in European Romance languages — Latin, Spanish, Italian, and French — and often quoting European men — French mathematician and inventor Blaise Pascal (“The heart has its reasons, whereof reason knows nothing”), French writer Voltaire (“The more a man knows, the less he talks”), Italian poet Dante, Roman poet Horace (“To action little, less to words inclined”), Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes, Greek playwright Euripedes (“Nothing is hopeless, we must hope for everything”), Roman philosopher Seneca (“Nothing deters a good man from doing what’s honorable”), Spanish statesman Antonio Pérez (“An old ass knows more than a young colt”), and, of course, Shakespeare (specifically Prospero in The Tempest: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on”). Groundbreaking women are mentioned in A Wrinkle in Time — when the Mrs. encourage the children to brainstorm who could have fought IT and the Black Thing in the past, Charles Wallace correctly guesses Marie Curie — but I don’t think Mrs. Who quotes any.
And then there’s the Christianity stuff, which once you focus your gaze is quite obvious. Calvin fights back against IT and the Black Thing by using terms like “angels,” “guardian angels,” and “messengers of God” in reference to Mrs. Which, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Whatsit. And when there’s this exchange, before they even depart for Camazotz:
“Who have our fighters been?” Calvin asked.
“Oh, you must know them, dear,” Mrs. Whatsit said.
Mrs. Who’s spectacles shone out at them triumphantly, “And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”
“Jesus!” Charles Wallace said. “Why of course, Jesus!”
“Of course!” Mrs. Whatsit said.
Look, I’m not trying to bash Christianity here in particular, but what I am saying is that L’Engle’s choice of quotations, which also included Cal quoting FDR and Abraham Lincoln, was very much a product of what we readily accept as Western canon — mostly old white and old European guys, and mostly works with a Christian point of view. Which is why Mindy Kaling’s performance of Mrs. Who was such a breath of fresh air, not only because she was one of two women of color, positioned alongside Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon as Mrs. Which and Mrs. Whatsit, respectively, as the film’s forces of wisdom and light, but because the people she quoted were often of color, too, and just as worthy of being incorporated into what we consider the accepted and respected canon of great thinkers and great leaders.
Mrs. Who’s first line is from Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran (“Life without love is like a tree without blossom or fruit”), who is known for his romantic, mystical work. Then there was Persian poet Rumi (“The wound is the place where the light enters you,” a line that is impactful for Meg later in the film as she considers the gift of her flaws), who Ava quoted constantly in tweets leading up to the release of the film and whose work has permeated Western culture so much that Beyoncé named her daughter after him.
Then there’s also Outkast (“You need to get up, get out and get something. How will you make it if you never even try?”), from the song “Git Up, Git Out”:
Plus, Buddha (“The foot feels the foot when it hits the ground”) and comedian Chris Tucker (Kaling’s exuberant delivery of “Dang!” was perfect):
And sure, even Shakespeare (“When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?” from Macbeth, a direct callback to L’Engle’s book, in which the Mrs. laugh over that line) and the most old white guy of all old white guys, Winston Churchill (“Planning is essential”). Finally, once the children return triumphantly from Camazotz with Chris Pine’s fine-ass Mr. Murry in tow, Mrs. Who reassures them “Tomorrow, there’ll be more of us,” from “Miranda, American,” as in Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel and the song “The Story of Tonight,” in which Hamilton, Laurens, Mulligan, and Lafayette declare their loyalty to the revolution and to the promise of a new country, one that would stand for independence, liberty, and freedom, “something they can never take away.”
L’Engle’s quotes were chosen from a narrow field — one where European classics took precedence over all other forms of literature, poetry, or thought. But the film version of Mrs. Who nudges the boundaries wider by tapping into what other cultures and communities already know. Gibran and Rumi have been revered in the Middle East and in Iran for decades and centuries, respectively. Tucker was a magnetic force in the ’90s and early ’00s; his partnership with Jackie Chan for the Rush Hour movies was mind-bogglingly successful, and as a black man and an immigrant from Hong Kong, they redefined what blockbuster comedies could be for a mainstream audience. Outkast’s André 3000 and Big Boi were constantly reinventing the formal definitions of hip-hop, winning Grammy Awards and selling millions upon millions of albums. Miranda did the same for Broadway with Hamilton, casting actors of color as Founding Fathers and giving the immigrants who helped form the United States of America the acknowledgment and humanity school textbooks have denied them for so long. None of these people looks like those L’Engle quoted in her novel, but they’re just as worthy of having their words repeated, analyzed, laughed at, enjoyed, and admired.
Are the new Mrs. Who quotes reflective of our times, more in line with our world, more inclusive in their inspiration? Kaling thinks so; on the British TV show Lorraine on March 14, she praised the script, saying “It was cool that they updated the quotations from the original book, which were more classic and from the Judaism/Christian history.” The choices aren’t perfect — there is this guy claiming online that the Buddha quote is incorrectly attributed; this 2017 piece from Rozina Ali at The New Yorker raises a valid point about how the translations of Rumi’s work have removed the Islamic influence from his poetry; and it stings that there were no women quoted in this big-screen version of A Wrinkle in Time, an oversight shared with its source text. But ultimately with Mrs. Who, DuVernay and her collaborators are making the case that creators who happen to be Lebanese or Persian or African American or Puerto Rican are just as worthy of our respect and our attention, deserve to be quoted just as much as L’Engle’s original choices. Just like the casting of Kaling, Oprah, Storm Reid, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Deric McCabe, how the film treats Mrs. Who is another message — that our heroes shouldn’t all come from a certain religion or a certain part of the world. Our heroes can look like us, and their words can dictate how we choose to live.