Racial Minefields Explode in ‘Little Fires Everywhere’
5 things the Emmy-nominated Hulu miniseries gets right about Black v. White.
The Hulu miniseries Little Fires Everywhere immediately pulled me in when it debuted in March of this year, but I didn’t feel its full impact until the weeks after I watched the April finale. The eight episodes negotiate a series of social land mines — racial divides, White privilege, interracial relationships, class consciousness, liberal guilt, Black pride — that would make for uncomfortable talking points during the best of times. However, in a world rubbed raw by a global pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, their explosive potential has multiplied exponentially.
Starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington as rival mothers Elena Richardson and Mia Warren, the TV adaptation of Celeste Ng’s 2017 novel sometimes seems to be bending over sideways to stuff too many loaded topics into eight weeks: racism, motherhood, lesbianism, homophobia, sibling rivalry, infidelity, abortion, adoption, surrogacy, teenage pregnancy, and, of course, arson. Ultimately, though, the crowded agenda helps the miniseries live up to its title, both figuratively and literally.
I’m glad it wasn’t forgotten when the Emmy nominations were announced on July 28 and scored major nods for Outstanding Limited Series and Outstanding Actress in a Limited Series or Movie (for Washington). It’s a worthwhile watch, and hopefully, the Emmy attention amid recent global developments will revive interest in it, attracting new viewers and encouraging ones who’ve already watched to revisit it with fresh eyes.
After I finished the finale in April, I came up with a list of things Little Fires Everywhere gets right about the racial divide between Black and White Americans. Three months later, they resonate even more.
White people in interracial relationships aren’t always enlightened about race.
In a miniseries packed with flawed characters, Jade Pettyjohn’s Lexie Richardson is probably the most maddening. It’s difficult to watch a White high school girl with straight A’s and a Black boyfriend be so clueless about race. Sadly, she reflects the misplaced values of a lot of White people who date Black.
Many claim to be color blind, and that’s the problem. If they don’t see race, they can’t possibly understand the flammable ways in which Black and White lives intersect and how one influences the other. White lives historically have devalued Black lives in the U.S. and, sadly, continue to do so. That can’t not affect any interracial couple, especially when one of them thinks race doesn’t matter. Lexie’s inability to see life and their relationship through her boyfriend Brian’s eyes dooms them from their first kiss.
White people who adopt minority babies aren’t always enlightened about race.
At first the adoption story felt like a minor diversion to give Rosemarie DeWitt (Rachel Getting Married) more to do than be Reese Witherspoon’s best friend, but it ends up feeding into the main narrative in an unexpected way, eerily echoing Mia’s own backstory. Are a couple more qualified to be parents because they happen to be financially stable? If so, should Child Protective Services start snatching babies from the homes of economically challenged parents and awarding them to childless affluent couples who can give them a “better” life?
It’s actually the height of White privilege to not be able to understand the extenuating circumstances that might lead a poor illegal immigrant to abandon her baby and later realize she’s made a major mistake. At first, I went back and forth on who should win custody of the baby, the upper-crust White couple or her birth mother, an Asian diner waitress who lives paycheck to paycheck. The latter didn’t seem like the most stable would-be parent in the running. Eventually, though, I landed on her side because her rivals in family court lacked the two qualities every parent should have: compassion and empathy.
White liberals sometimes use benevolence to keep minorities in their place.
I was disappointed that Reese Witherspoon didn’t receive an Emmy nomination because she nails the complexities of Elena Richardson, a low-tier journalist who gave up a promising career to become a mother-of-four. It’s not clear if her job offer to Mia Warren, a tenant in the her family’s rental home, comes from a place of genuine kindness or if she’s just trying to secure her upper-hand position in their power structure.
It’s not like she would be the first White person to lift herself up by keeping a Black person down. During the antebellum age, even White masters who didn’t spare the whip spun slavery as a benefit to Blacks because it gave them food, shelter, clothing, and old-time White religion. Yep, the White-savior narrative was in place long before Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird.
Mia doesn’t need a White knight (or a job cleaning the Richardsons’ main home), but Elena is determined to be one anyway. Her conversations with her husband (Dawson’s Creek’s Joshua Jackson, disappearing into the role, but not in a good way) underscore Elena’s need to be seen as a “woke” White person with a firm grip on the steering wheel, even if she drives with her eyes closed.
Interracial friendships defined by economic inequality are loaded with land mines.
It’s hard enough to work as someone’s housekeeper, but working as a friend’s housekeeper must be the height of awkward. I enjoyed the tense, tentative initial friendship between Elena and Mia, with the unwieldy elephant constantly sucking all the air out of the room. It becomes a more predictable rivalry once they can no longer ignore the unsaid and devolve into full-blown enemies, but with such racial and economic inequity between them, is there any other possible outcome?
Teenage Black girls can be just as complicated as teenage White girls.
The status obsession of Mia’s daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood) feels like real life, especially in the social media age where impressionable young people are conditioned to always want more than they have. And while Pearl could use lessons from her mother on how not to idolize rich White people, it’s refreshing to see her at the center of a love triangle with two brothers.
As everyone who lives in the real world should know, teenage Black girls are capable of being so much more than the sassy sidekick. They can be insecure and needy, and they can scheme just as effectively as any teenage White girl. Most importantly, they can even have their own storyline. Welcome to the real world.