After watching a movie or TV series, I’m the kind of person who looks through IMBD.com to read the trivia, reviews, and to see what else the actors have done that I might be familiar with. I don’t know why I do this. Maybe its because I don’t want to leave whatever immersive world I had inhabited while watching, and this is a weird way of being in that world a little longer. But why I do it doesn’t really matter.
So after I finished the limited TV series Little Fires Everywhere, I scrolled through IMBD as usual. I hadn’t read the book before watching the series, so I learned that one of the main characters, Mia, had an unspecified race in the novel. In the show she was played by a black woman, Kerry Washington. Ms. Washington is probably best known for her lead role in Scandal, but I recognized her as Chenille from Save the Last Dance, a movie released the year I graduated from high school (2001). So I have obviously not followed Kerry Washington’s career very carefully, but I thought she was great in the role of Mia.
However, as I started to read reviews for the show, I was struck by how many were about Kerry Washington’s lack of acting skills (apparently she only has three expressions?). Even stranger, most of the reviews barely commented on the show itself, preferring to disparage Ms. Washington instead. As a person who reads IMDB reviews regularly, I couldn’t remember the last time so many people panned one specific actor in a show or movie. I hate reposting these reviews here, but I think I need to in order to make my point.
As I scrolled, I struggled to find one that didn’t comment on how bad her acting was. I started to think, “Am I bad judge of acting ability?” Maybe she does have her go-to facial expressions as seen in other shows (but so do I lot of actors). I just don’t think her acting warranted this many bad reviews.
And then I got to this review:
I think it was the comment that she was “angry and racial” that made me stop and realize that there was more going on here than people not liking a certain actress. I think most people are conflating Ms. Washington with her character. And let’s talk about that character (Spoilers below): Mia is a black artist, single mom to teenager Pearl, and newcomer to Shaker Heights, OH. She does not have a warm and bubbly personality. She can be disconcertingly quiet and cagy. I think part of that caginess is a result of running from a secret in her past that she is afraid will catch up with her, but some of it also surely comes from being a black woman traveling on her own in predominantly white spaces. Mia is also incredibly perceptive and loving (and not just to her own child but to the black sheep child of the woman she despises). She is also unapologetically Black. So I would say she is “racial” as the reviewer above noted because her blackness is always with her. She does not make the other white characters comfortable when they step into awkward racial faux pas. She does not apologize for who she is or how she chooses to live. Whiteness makes us think that race is only a factor when people of color enter the scene. Reese Witherspoon’s whiteness is just as much of a factor in her scenes as well.
Another common denominator of all these comments is about how angry Mia is as a character. I thought her character was fascinating precisely because she did not cover over her anger, especially because many people would see her as the “angry, black woman” trope. She expressed her anger freely (when she felt safe to do so), unlike Reese Witherspoon’s character Elena who would cover over her anger with a false smile and passive aggressive comments (until the end when her anger about how her life has turned out becomes too much for putting on the veneer of geniality).
And here is the thing about Mia’s anger. It is nearly all warranted. Not only is she daily encountering microaggressions from well-meaning and some not-so-well-meaning white people, but she is witnessing the hurt that white privilege inflicts on her child. One vivid example of that privilege is when Lexie, Elena’s daughter, writes Pearl’s name instead of her own at the abortion clinic, afraid of smearing her own reputation, but doesn’t give a thought to Pearl’s. Lexie then has the audacity to still expect Pearl to take care of her after the abortion, which she does. Mia has the right to be angry for her child, but she doesn’t yell at Lexie. Instead she envelopes her in a hug of understanding, the anger burning deep inside her until she can safely express it through her art.
I actually think Mia is the more likable character, even though she is apparently perceived as the “stormy,” “angry,” one. Elena is meant to be the “bad guy” in this show. She inflicts major emotional harm on her children and on nearly every other character with more than two minutes of screen time. One major fault of the show compared to the book (or so I’ve heard) is lack of nuance. The novel does not have a clear hero or villain in either woman, but nuance doesn’t read well for prime time television.
Even though Elena is the clear villain, I found myself identifying with many parts of her personality and actions. I have been guilty of wanting to be seen as a “good white person,” mentioning the time I marched with Dr. King. Ok — so that was Elena — but I have other moments written on my “good white card,” like the time I dated a Muslim or had a Latina roommate. I haven’t called the cops for a black person being in my neighborhood, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t internally more cautious around him. I think Elena, with her facade of perfection and goodness, hits closer to home than many of us would like to think.
This thought brings us to my favorite scene: Izzy has been sent home from school for creating a misguided art installation where she put black and yellow face on Cabbage Patch dolls to make a point that in our society, babies are “worth” different values depending on their race. Instead of staying home, she runs to fellow artist Mia’s house. Izzy is venting about her unwarranted suspension, but Mia sharply stops her and says that what she did was wrong, even if her heart was in the right place. Mia says, “You can’t challenge people and not expect to be challenged back.” At this moment Izzy looks so small and fragile and white, as if she might cry. But she is young enough and humble enough to accept this critique. She simply nods her head and stays silent. I loved this exchange because Izzy was being confronted with her racism and instead of being defensive, she soaks in the realization of what she’s done. Elena may be the embodiment of how not to be an anti-racist, but Izzy shows us the way.
I thought the series was a powerful meditation on motherhood, race and class, even if parts of the story were a bit melodramatic and unbelievable. But it is also the only TV show in recent memory that confronts white privilege and the subtle racism of liberal whites. It is definitely worth the watch, even if Kerry Washington’s limited emotional range bothers you. I still think she’s great. But I would suggest that it is not Ms. Washington’s acting abilities that most people found unwatchable — but the confrontation of racism in our own hearts.