I went to see the new "Hairspray" with an officemate today. If you've lost track, this is the movie version of the Broadway show that started off as a John Water's movie that came out in the late 80s.  Written and directed by Waters, it takes place in his Baltimore in the early 60s, the town and time in which he grew up.  

I had seen the original movie, being a big John Waters fan at the time (still am).  What's shocking to me is how obvious the racial justice theme is in this movie given that I have no memory of this from the original movie.  I'm sure that it was in there; I was just not framing things in terms of racial justice as much as I am now.  It makes me wonder how much we miss due to what we filter.  And it explains why people can be at the same event and walk away with completely different experiences.

If you had asked me what the original Hairspray was about, I would have said, "Well, it's a John Waters film and it stars Ricki Lake (it was her big break) and Divine is in it (love Divine) and Debby Harry and Ric Ocasek and Sonny Bono (you know that John Waters, he's so quirky) and it takes place in Baltimore for some reason in the 60s, and there's a lot of dancing and a rivalry between teens, and it's very quirky."  If I was aware of any social inequity being highlighted in the movie, it was the prejudice against overweight women.  That was all.

In this Hairspray, however, there was no mistaking that dancing for teens of color was relegated specifically to the neatly segregated time-slot of "Negro Day." (In case you're so dense that you need this spelled out for you, Queen Latifah does an excellent job.) And that Tracy Turnblad's fight was not for teen popularity but for equality.  

What I learned from my officemate Taquiena, who grew up in DC at this time, is that Hairspray is based on a true story.  The afternoon teen dance shows that existed in Baltimore and DC and other cities across the U.S. were racially segregated.  And in Baltimore a group of protesting students successfully convinced the producers to desegregate the dance show.  However unlike in the movie, where we are led to believe that the 60s were ushering in a new era of equality and they lived happily every after, in real life the newly integrated show was canceled within a season.

Hairspray, it's amazing what you see with a different pair of lenses.  I will have to rent the John Waters original and give it another look.  Clearly he deserves more attention and credit than I've given him.

Forum Activity

Fri, 10/31/2014 - 08:11
Mon, 06/16/2014 - 07:09
Tue, 10/01/2013 - 22:01

Acknowledgments is made possible in part by generous support from the Fahs Collaborative