I love Hairspray. I’ll admit I am still partial to the old version with Ricki Lake, but the new version with John Travola, Zac Efron, and Michelle Pfeiffer is certainly worthy of an honorable mention. What I love best about Hairspray is not the songs and characters, although they make it lively and entertaining. I like the roots of the show – the fight for racial integration.
There aren’t many movies who do what Hairspray does. In a single, silly dance movie, the struggles of the African-American people of the 1960s is highlighted in a way that is easy for everyone to understand. The movie shows us what segregation looked like, at least in theatrical form, and while it doesn’t show the ugliest aspect of it, it gives us a sugar and music coated version to remind us that not all of our history is fantastic.
There are differences between the original movie and the more recent one, but the more recent one actually has an easier to understand account of segregation. The old one might have been a bit more historically accurate. For example, it’s highly unlikely a woman was a station manager in 1962 unless the station was very progressive.
In the film, Tracy Turnblad is an overweight girl who happens to be hip and with it. She’s into dancing and lands herself a star dance spot on the Corny Collins Show. Tracy’s nemesis is Amber, the perky blonde number whose mom runs the station. Amber’s mom, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, is determined to bring fame to her own daughter and to keep the show segregated despite integration efforts being made all around the city.
Tracy is friends with people of all colors and almost immediately shocks the station by claming to want “Negro Day” every day, not just the last Tuesday of the month. When Negro Day is cancelled by Amber’s mom, Tracy begins a quest that might bring integration to the show or might just land her in jail – or worse, off the Corny Collins Show for good.
Light Business on a Serious Subject
Dancing and Miss Teenage Hairspray Pageants make very light of the social disruptions that were occurring all over the United States during this era. The Civil Rights movement began in earnest during this decade and efforts to bring equality to everyone haven’t stopped since.
Obviously, the Civil Rights movement was difficult. There were deaths and beatings frequently as African-Americans pushed for change. Martin Luther King was assassinated over his role in race relations and many more of all colors whose names we don’t know as readily struggled for equality.
I personally love that a serious subject, such as race relations, can be treated lightly with dance contests and “checkerboard chicks,” but none of the deeper meaning and roots of the movement are lost. Hairspray simply manages to entertain us while reminding us that this country is build on much more than hamburgers and blue jeans.