The new YA romance happens to be a “diverse film,” but that’s not what the story is about.
The strongest point the new YA romance Everything, Everything makes about being a racially inclusive story is not making a point of it at all.
In the MGM and Warner Bros. adaptation of Nicola Yoon’s best-selling novel, Amandla Stenberg plays Maddy, an 18-year-old girl who has been confined to her house her whole life because of a rare immune disorder. All things considered, she’s relatively content, thanks to the Internet, an extensive personal collection of books and a close and loving relationship with her mother, Pauline (Anika Noni Rose).
That peace is shaken when teenage boy Olly (Nick Robinson) moves in next door. Through good old-fashioned through-the-windows flirting and new-fangled instant messaging, Maddy and Olly fall in love, testing the boundaries of Maddy’s health.
With literal matters of life and death to worry about, little is made of the fact that Olly is white and Maddy is half-black. (They live in a fairly nice neighborhood somewhere in L.A. County.) That was an intentional choice for author Yoon, whose own self-admitted overprotectiveness of her daughter inspired the story. Maddy’s racial makeup was also deliberately chosen in order to give her daughter, now 5, a character that reflects her own biracial identity (Yoon’s daughter is half-black, half-Asian, as is Maddy in the novel).
“I didn’t really want to talk about race, but I wanted people to be represented just living their lives,” Yoon tells The Hollywood Reporter. “My little girl has no notion that her family would be perceived as unusual. These are just the people who love her more than anybody else in the world, and that’s her reality.”
That straightforward quality of telling a diverse story was what drew Stenberg to the project, in the Hunger Games alum’s much-anticipated first leading role. “One of the most powerful things [a film] can do is just let that black teenage girl exist,” she tells THR. “The point was to normalize black girls, their beauty and their ability to be loved.”
Stenberg also credits the involvement of director Stella Meghie, who is Jamaican-Canadian, with giving her the reassurance that this YA studio movie would be told for and through an authentically black female perspective, as opposed to one that would “fetishize” black women. Yoon too praised Meghie’s handling of the film, including cultural nuances such as how to depict Maddy’s skin tone and her natural hair. Yet Meghie’s hiring was race-blind, according to MGM motion picture group president Jonathan Glickman.
“We had many good meetings with different filmmakers, but Stella was the first to bring the fantasy element to the movie,” he tells THR, referring to the director’s inspired idea to stage Maddy and Olly’s many online conversations as imagined face-to-face encounters inside the various dioramas Maddy spends her time building. “At the end of the day, what won the job was [her] unique perspective.”
In a landscape in which just three black women (Ava DuVernay, Gina Prince-Bythewood and Sanaa Hamri) have directed a major film in the last decade, Everything, Everything’s existence is significant. Still, although the film offers long-overdue inclusion of black women behind and in front of the camera, it also erases an opportunity for Asian representation in changing Pauline’s character from Japanese in the novel to black in the movie. (A photograph of Maddy’s family glimpsed on her nightstand hints that her late father may have been Asian.)
Stenberg acknowledges the validity of this critique (as well as other critiques about the story’s depiction of immune disorders). “It’s something I contemplated when taking the role,” she says. “It was a complicated dynamic to navigate, but for me it was so important to create biracial representation onscreen that I couldn’t necessarily turn it down.”
Meghie refused to answer a question about the decision. In response to queries about race, she offered a Toni Morrison quote via email: “I urge you to be careful for there is a deadly prison… that is erected when one spends one’s life fighting phantoms, concentrating on myths and explaining over and over to the conqueror your language, your lifestyle, your history, your habits. And you don’t have to do it anymore.”
Yoon explains that she had hoped to see her family reflected (she is Jamaican-American and married to fellow writer David Yoon, a Korean-American) but recognizes that “it’s a process.”
“There’s a dearth of representation of Asians in media and it’s something that my husband and I talk about all the time,” she says. “Hopefully it’s something that we can both help change going forward.”
Chances are likely, given that MGM already has optioned Yoon’s second novel, The Sun Is Also a Star, which employs multiple first-person perspectives to tell the love story between Daniel, a Korean-American teenager in Flushing, N.Y., and Natasha, whose family is 12 hours away from being deported back to Jamaica. Girls Trip’s Tracy Oliver is writing the screenplay.
“I really wanted to talk about what it means to feel like you’re between two cultures, what it means to be American, and what it means to be a kid discovering yourself,” says Yoon, who says the deportation storyline is unfortunately more timely than she had anticipated while writing the novel. “We talk about these immigration issues as if they’re only about politics, when we’re talking about people who have hopes and dreams and want the same thing everybody else wants. I want to put a human face on this.”
Plus, “I wanted to fall in love too and talk a lot about it,” she adds. “I wanted these kids to be philosophical and chat and fall in love with each other’s brains.”