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Monday, July 23, 2007

Hairspray’s Race Problems

posted by on July 23 at 11:01 AM


It’s something I brought up in my film review and Dan reiterated yesterday on Slog: The new movie of Hairspray—originally written for the screen in 1988 by John Waters, adapted into a Tony-winning Broadway musical in 2003, and now back on the screen as a movie musical by Adam Schankman—has some unfortunate problems with race.

As you probably already know, Hairspray tells the story of Tracy Turnblad, an effervescent fat girl with dreams of dancing stardom who finds her calling as a segregation-busting teen leader in early-60s Baltimore. As some commenters have pointed out, expecting historical accuracy from a movie based on a musical based on a John Waters film is ridiculous. I agree, and my problems with Hairspray-the-movie-musical’s handling of the plot’s racial elements aren’t about historical inaccuracies, but about a weird and troubling lunkheadedness on the part of its makers.

Trust me, I didn’t enter the movie expecting to be offended about its cluelessness in regard to race issues—I expected to be offended by the hideous miscasting of John Travolta as Tracy’s mom Edna, and I was: Travolta’s aggressively terrible. But eventually even Travolta’s crimes against humanity were eclipsed by the film’s race problems, which especially sucks because the original film dealt with race issues so elegantly and hilariously.

In John Waters’ original Hairspray, Tracy’s awakening as a pro-integration activist is spiked with a rich and telling dash of vanity and cultural fetishism. (“Oh Link!” cries the original Tracy, mid-make-out session. “I wish I was black!” With dewey earnestness, Link replies, “Our souls are black, though our skin is white.”)

This entire aspect of Tracy and Link’s “turning on” to the struggle for civil rights is completely axed from the new movie, as are all of the original Velma Von Tussle’s racial slurs, and the entire storyline of Penny Pingleton forced into shock therapy for dating a black guy.

A similar blanching occurs with the music: In the original, black people were represented by ass-kicking R&B, the type of songs that would make David Duke wish he were black—”Shake a Tail Feather” by the Five Du-Tones, “Tell Him” by the Exciters, “Nothing Takes the Place of You” by Toussaint McCall. In the musical, we get black actors singing showtunes about “the darker the berry, the sweeter the juice.” I wish I were kidding.

And yes, I know it’s all supposed to be a light froofy goof, but I was unable to get swept up in mindless fun because I kept getting hit in the face by the filmmakers’ tone-deafness in regard to one of their movie’s main themes (and John Travolta’s horribleness). That is all.

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Charles, is that you pretending to be David?

Although I did agree about John Travolta.

Posted by Will in Seattle | July 23, 2007 11:23 AM

Caution: Vivisectionists ahead.

Christ - even "War and Peace" has received less deconstructive criticism.

Maybe the "Hairspray" creative arts gang should have renamed the film "Brown vs. Board of Education."

Posted by KENTUCKY KERNEL OF TRUTH | July 23, 2007 11:24 AM

I'll never watch it.


This is nothing like Charles.

Posted by Mr. Poe | July 23, 2007 11:31 AM

Imagine this... great chef creates the most amazing dish. It becomes an instant favorite with foodies. Another chef decides to recreate it with his own spices added here and there. It still tastes great, not exactly like the original but still really good really good. Then McDonalds makes their version to sell to the mass market for $1.99.

So with that said, I think I'll pass on McHairspray.

Posted by monkey | July 23, 2007 11:41 AM

@3 - well, after seeing the next article, I am forced to agree with you.

But Travolta is still disappointing.

Posted by Will in Seattle | July 23, 2007 11:44 AM

just because you're gay doesn't mean you have to go see every film version of a musical.

Posted by maxsolomon | July 23, 2007 11:53 AM

Here is a new low; the deconstructive critique of "Hairspray" A FUCKING MUSICAL PEOPLE!!! What is next: "The Existentialist approach to 'Polyester'" Must be a slow week at the Stranger.

Posted by Cato the Younger Younger | July 23, 2007 12:04 PM

@ 7, why shouldn't people deconstruct musicals?

Do you think the musical is such a sub-par art form that it isn't worthy of critique? What about elegant, complex musicals like Sweeney Todd or West Side Story or subversive musicals such as Chorus Line and Rent?

Really? You're writing off an entire beloved art form? Because it has ... music involved?

Posted by arduous | July 23, 2007 12:11 PM

Musicals are a far, far higher art form than anything involving the word "Existential".

Posted by fnarf | July 23, 2007 12:20 PM

@7 - it's a film, they're critics, what do you expect?

Besides, John Travolta really is that bad in it.

Posted by Will in Seattle | July 23, 2007 12:46 PM

I'm with Schmader—and it's not just about history, it's about comedy. No matter what metric you use, the fall from "our souls are black, though our skin is white" to “the darker the berry, the sweeter the juice” is tragic.

Posted by dancepants | July 23, 2007 12:50 PM


Posted by dre | July 23, 2007 12:59 PM

I'm not surprised.

Why should I be after Marty McFly taught Chuck Berry how to play rock and roll?

Good work, David!

Posted by pgreyy | July 23, 2007 1:14 PM

I have no interest in seeing this travesty, all the more so after reading Schmader's review and this post. I am somewhat intrigued, however, as it is one of the best-reviewed movies on Rotten Tomatoes right now (93%), so plenty of people are lovin' it. Maybe they didn't see the original?

Posted by Levislade | July 23, 2007 1:27 PM

I don't understand this constant frenzy for remakes. There are a hell of a lot of good screenplays out there that never see the light of day, because studio executives are complete maroons. Instead of anything new, fresh, or original, they want Spiders of the Shrekibbean 12: Die Hard at Halloween. Then they wonder why adults don't want to go to the movies.

I see absolutely no reason to remake the original Hairspray, which I think is perfectly fabulous just as it is. And with the other wonderful casting choices they made, why, oh WHY, John Travolta? He literally looks like he has one chromosome too many in the stills I've seen. Divine at least looked like a functional human being, not a horrible caricature. Plus I've always thought his dancing was overrated, his singing was barely adequate, and his acting...well, the less said about that, the better.

The dancing looks fun. But the dance scenes in the original were already fun! Why embellish it?

Then again, I disapprove of putting frosting on brownies or cinnamon rolls, too.

Posted by Geni | July 23, 2007 2:20 PM

I loved Waters' version, and I liked this one too.

I'm not into most musicals (that's my partner's arena) but I laughed for a couple of hours.

Was it Oscar quality? No. I accept some of the critique. As per usual however I'm more annoyed by the critics analysis than by the movie itself.

Sorry Schmader, I did get swept up in its mindless fun and had a couple of hours away from the more pressing things in the world. I think this over analysis forgets about that sometimes.

Posted by Dave Coffman | July 23, 2007 3:34 PM

@16: that sums it up for me also. I liked and enjoyed both the original and the new one. Michelle Pfiffer (sp?) and Queen Latifah were both really entertaining. Travolta was an odd choice, but I didn't mind him since he seemed to have really had fun with the role.

Posted by duncan | July 23, 2007 4:00 PM

It just suddenly hit me why Travolta sucks in this role?

Neither Devine or Harvey tried to disguise their voices. Neither tried to use an accent, they were just large husky broads. They were basically just being themselves... in a dress.

John Travolta is trying to act his way out of this role and we all know acting aint this boy's strong suit.

Posted by monkey | July 23, 2007 4:05 PM

I still love the original 'Hairspray' and I did like the musical, and yes I agree, the new movie was a fun time, I laughed, those songs were running in my head and I enjoyed the whole cast, even Travolta, I agree with the above who said it was mindless fun and Travolta seemed to have fun with it. That newcomer Nikki Blonsky was really great as well. I wanted more of Alison Janney!

Posted by Nick | July 23, 2007 4:16 PM

9: Yeah Fnarf, Bergman sucks! Rent and Hairspray are so much better. Oh sorry, I meant fabulous!

Posted by Jay | July 23, 2007 4:47 PM

Great blog, David. I completely agree with you regarding this remake's (I didn't see the musical) handling of race. It completely missed what Waters' tried to do with the original. It's also unfortunate that there are SLOG readers who don't want to hear this...or any critical racial analysis for that matter. Also, did someone imply that only Charles can talk critically about race? That's insulting...and a bit racist.

Posted by Joe | July 23, 2007 4:49 PM

I feel the same what about "Oklahoma". They totally ignored the plight of the farmer and the cowman.

Sorry, It's a movie, based on a musical that was based on a movie. I can't get too worked up about it. Although I am looking forward to seeing it on Wednesday night.

Posted by catalina vel-duray | July 23, 2007 7:05 PM

Well, the only way you'll know if you like "Hairspray" or not is to see it. Thus far, in a bare cursory reading of "Hairspray" reviews, only The Stranger and The Weekly have torturously arrived at a Caesarean thumbs-down. The NYTimes, The Seattle Times and P-I, Entertainment Weekly and TIME magazine have all had a good time, not to mention Ebert and Roeper. If you insist on not having a good time, I hear Scarecrow has "The Sorrow and the Pity" - now there's a knee-slapper... And it's historically correct.

Posted by JOHN, ETHEL & MUDDY WATERS | July 23, 2007 9:04 PM

John Travolta is magic.

Posted by regina hackett | July 24, 2007 2:14 AM

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