'Hairspray' Problem: Segregation Wasn't Fun

If you plan on reading any reviews of "Hairspray," the new movie musical that opens today, prepare to be soaked by the word "fun." And it’s a perfectly apt description: "Hairspray" is an energetic, crowd-pleasing musical set in the swinging ‘60s, so it’s replete with bouffants, sherbet-colored culottes and the dangerous, auspicious "race music" of the era. A game John Travolta dons a massive fat suit to play repressed Baltimore laundress Edna Turnblad, who’s overprotective of her dance-feverish daughter, Tracy (effervescent newcomer Nikki Blonsky.) Yeah, there’s fun all over the place. In fact, the only thing threatening to ruin all the fun is the pesky civil-rights movement, which, inconveniently, happens to be taking place around the same time.

In the 1988 John Waters film (not a musical, but the basis for the 2002 Broadway musical from which the new film is adapted), the zaftig Tracy longs to be featured on "The Corny Collins Show," Baltimore’s No. 1 afternoon teen-dance show, but she finds it hard to fit in despite her naturally gifted footwork. The show is exclusively white with the exception of a "Negro Day" held once a month. The black teens who dance on "Negro Day" are happy to be there, but they're disappointed that they get their shot so infrequently. In the world of "Hairspray," this is not a trivial matter, and what the original film, the musical and the new film all do well is making the integration of a TV dance show an issue of paramount importance. The end of Jim Crow laws was, after all, a death by a thousand cuts, as nonviolent protesters contested de jure segregation in every specific instance they encountered it. Integrating "The Corny Collins Show" would have been symbolically equal to a water fountain, a seat on a bus or anything else that seems like a trifling concern until someone tells you its not available to you because of your skin color. "Hairspray" and other high-school movies with racial segregation as an element—"Remember the Titans," for example—show how the hurtful injustice of Jim Crow laws affected the youth of the era by focusing on dancing or football: trivial matters to jaded, work-a-day grown-ups, but the center of the universe for a kid.

What Waters did right with his film was making the injustices of segregation intersect with Tracy’s story arc in a way that kept the film entertaining without being dishonest about the climate of the era. In the musical versions, the civil-rights subplot swells larger than in the Waters version. So how does one make a musical about segregation "fun"? Quite easily: by totally mischaracterizing the spirit of the civil-rights movement.

The newest musical "Hairspray" follows essentially the same plot as the original film, except that here it’s stated more explicitly that Tracy can understand the plight of blacks at the time because as an overweight girl she understands what it’s like to be an outsider. She gets put in detention with the black students and earns their respect by keeping up with their happening dance moves and visits them in the ‘hood, where she’s treated to a generous soul-food meal. The implication of all this is that the segregationists are perpetrating a grave injustice—but mostly to themselves, because once you get to know them, black people are really, really cool. This is what leads Tracy to fuel the fires of the disenfranchised black characters, who mostly treat racial injustice like a burnt-toast inconvenience until Tracy convinces them how awful it really is.

There were many Tracy Turnblads during the civil-rights movement—that is, whites who, for one reason or another, were way ahead of the curve on racial equality. But none of them had to explain to black people that they were being mistreated. By defanging the civil-rights movement, by robbing it of its anger, its frustration, its restlessness, it’s easier to make it into a palatable musical. Blacks during the civil-rights movement weren’t mildly annoyed by segregation, they were righteously enraged, and not because they longed for white approval for their music, dancing and food but because they were human beings that refused to be treated as less than.

Naturally, by the conclusion of "Hairspray," "The Corny Collins Show" has been successfully integrated, thanks in no small part to Tracy, and the blacks who had been disenfranchised finally get to share the spotlight. Played differently, it could have been a powerful moment that would highlight the importance of the civil-rights movement to this country’s history. It’s a shame all that "fun" had to get in the way.