Comfortable and Furious



It’s good to see that after all of these years, the Negroes can still sing and dance. I’d been concerned that with all the activism, protesting, and calls for civility in public life, blacks had thrown off the shackles of their natural rhythm and were spending all of their cinematic hours trying to, like, change things. After a quick wipe of the brow, I’m breathing a bit easier, to be sure. Adam Shankman’s Hairspray, the musical sensation based on the 1988 John Waters film of the same name (and recent stage hit), is the primary source of this relief, as any potential seriousness – desegregation in 1962 Baltimore – is quickly upstaged by the unmistakable message that blacks sought to mix with whites solely to seduce and steal their women. As one of them sings during an especially ribald montage, “The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.” It’s telling that I’ve forgotten the character’s name (Seaweed, was it?), but it’s just as well, as he exists for no other reason than to inspire a lollipop-inhaling nitwit (Amanda Bynes – cute, though only in a “To Catch a Predator” sort of way) to reject her Christian upbringing and ingest dark chocolate. At one point, she even offers the chestnut that having now gone black, she’ll “never go back.” It’s all so shocking and outrageous and rebellious, or might have been if this were 50 years in the past, but now it seems downright insulting. John Waters is no racist, but it is curious indeed that the civil rights movement, which was, if my manual is correct, mostly about voting, access to public accommodations, and economic justice, is perceived in this shallow twaddle as nothing more than the right to uphold stereotypes. Apparently, we shall not overcome.

And isn’t is just as bigoted to insist that blacks, of whatever era, were inherently hipper, cooler, and more groovy just because they had these new moves, man, that had the crackers all perplexed? Of course, sexualized dances were as powerful as sit-ins and marches in the same way that Levis and Walkmans helped bring down the Iron Curtain, but here, the case is wildly overstated. The film wants to prove to us how superior we are by contrasting our current attitudes with the overt prejudices of a bygone era, but how much progress have we made when not a single black character is anything but the sum total of his or her contributions on the dance floor or in the bedroom? Even the little girl who eventually reigns supreme at the end is a simplistic mockery, as her dreams consist of shaking her ass, not attending Harvard or healing old wounds. Sure, equal protection for all is a noble goal and should include all pursuits, high or low, but this symbol of achievement is a future pole dancer or gum-snapping prostitute, not a figure of power. As much as American cinema believes it has crossed racial barriers by casting blacks in one-note roles of wisdom and authority, it uses nostalgic pieces like this to convince itself it sees the African-American population as complex human beings. Clearly, though, loud, abrasive, and assertive blacks still scare the shit out of white America, and at the end of the day, we’d rather see them distracted by funky beats. If they be dancing, they ain’t planning to go all Nat Turner on us and shit.

And what’s with the unendingly jolly fat man making yet another appearance? Fine, it’s a young girl this time (Tracy Turnblad, as played by Nikki Blonsky), but as the fatties in my neighborhood are all mean, petty, and sucking on oxygen, I couldn’t understand this dynamic whale and her belief that all is right so long as the feet are on fire. Tracy is an idiot of monumental proportions, and her smile so blinding in its absurdity that I wanted to punch her teeth down her throat. If it’s 1962 and your biggest problem is the inability to get top billing on some insipid dance show, you are living in the clouds, a fact proven by the opening number – a set piece that imagines a Baltimore as having no more danger than a flasher and a few cute rats. And yet, the film considers Tracy’s awakening as a young woman, which might have entailed the burning landscape outside of her refrigerator, but instead means that all is well so long as blacks and whites can bump and grind before a studio audience. In her world, as with all the allegedly liberal-minded characters who walk arm in arm with Baltimore’s dark-skinned population, blacks belong with us because they have nothing more threatening to offer than a toe-tapping good time. And some good food, apparently. It’s unclear what Tracy would have thought had Seaweed or any of the other woefully underdeveloped black characters actually pushed the envelope, but that’s not the film’s agenda. It’s irony, it’s kitsch, and, yes, it’s utter bullshit.


As a musical, the whole stinking enterprise lacks a single memorable tune, though I won’t soon forgot the image of an all-dancing, all-singing, needing-to-come-the-fuck-out-of-the-closet John Travolta in a fat suit. It’s even worse than his ludicrous turn in the veiled flesh feast Wild Hogs, though not by much. And he’s joined by the contemptible Christopher Walken, who’s now played clueless and weird so many times that it stretches the very definition of umpteenth. As such, it’s fucking impossible to remember a time when the bastard simply acted, rather than living out a curious persona that seems to embrace his volcanic psychosis. The mere sight of him pisses me off, and even a viewing of The Deer Hunter isn’t enough to wash away the stink. Every dollar he’s made in the past 20 years is tainted, dirty money, and he should be ashamed to have spread his cheeks so wide. Though not as humiliated as Michelle Pfeiffer, who has apparently spent her down time throwing up lunch and dinner. She’s pretty damn well-preserved for a woman her age, though eating disorders cease to be cute around the third decade of life. If you haven’t come to terms with your self-hatred by then, you might as well remove the finger from your throat and insert a fully loaded firearm. It’s equally depressing that she hasn’t learned to sing since Grease 2, though having the same face through the miracle of science is a cautious cause for celebration.

In all, Hairspray is loud, long, and silly, at least when it isn’t dragging the black community behind its shiny happy pickup truck. It’s confirmation that John Waters, for all of his reputation as a rebel, is among the most conservative filmmakers alive. He’s still of the belief that poop jokes and interracial dancing are revolutionary, and that we can disrupt the kingdom with a quip about oral sex. Sure, he’s crude and juvenile and outrageous, but he has all the bite of Sid Caesar, and his films, while often tasteless, haven’t rocked the foundations in decades. Waters lost his teeth about the time he should have lost his mustache, and it’s sad to watch everyone running about convinced that he’s a bold innovator. It’s tough to tell, as all gay men revere kitsch, but I wonder if Hairspray isn’t subversive in exactly the way it’s intended: the world was better off in those days, largely because there still existed the capacity to shock and appall. In an age where shoulders are shrugged for just about everything short of mass murder, Waters might be on to something to suggest that as bad as segregation was, and as slow to boil as the era’s kids were, at least they ended up giving a shit, even if it eventually topped out at sucking black cock on a freedom ride.