Arts Hairspray’s Race Problems
posted by July 23 at 11:01 AMon
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.