Friday, February 22, 2008

LITTLE SHOP - Green Like Me

There have been suggestions that Little Shop of Horrors is racist, and if the film were not such a blatant satire on every aspect of American life, then the criticism might stick (the white-bread world of Audrey’s suburban fantasy is hardly treated with reverence). The criticism arises from the fact that the only African-American characters are a few bums, the three chorus girls, and the villainous plant, with its pouty lips, bad attitude and unmistakably black (not African-American, but black, with all it implies) voice. A closer reading reveals that the film’s position vis-√†-vis race is actually quite sly. Read all about it after the jump!

PhotobucketThe twin keys are the film’s time period and musical choices. Little Shop of Horrors is set in the early 1960s, when the civil rights movement was being born. In this period, African-Americans were a prominent part of everyday American life, yet they were banished to the basement of popular consciousness. The only arena in which they exerted an undeniable influence was in popular music – in jazz, the blues, and of course, rock & roll. Indeed, the only place many white kids could come in contact with blacks was on the radio: Little Richard, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins broadcast lascivious innuendo over America’s lily-white airwaves, while girl-groups such as the Supremes offered a more slick, shimmering sensuality. Though many white broadcasters refused to play "race music," many more recognized that green is a more potent color than either black or white – which brings us back to Little Shop of Horrors.

Little Shop
plays off this cultural trend by creating the three chorus girls, Crystal, Ronette and Chiffon. Just as their namesake girl-groups were plucked from poverty and groomed for success by labels such as Motown, the Little Shop girls magically change from ragamuffin street clothes to glittering gowns whenever a song begins. Once, they even perform this feat without the benefit of a camera edit! Though the girls have no participation in the actual narrative Рonly twice do they even speak to the other characters - barely a scene goes where they are not present, either vocally or visually. Always, they watch the action from the background, commenting directly to the audience with meaningful looks and pointed lyrics. Like a tune you keep hearing on the radio, the girls are ubiquitous: they appear on fire escapes, on rooftops, outside windows; they seem to move through walls and are often invisible to the main characters. Moreover, the cultural cliché of black "authenticity" is invoked by the fact that the girls are the only ones who truly know what is going on. Like the Greek Chorus on which they are modeled, Ronette, Crystal and Chiffon are allied with implacable Fate. As the proceedings grow more sinister, they transmute into sleek sirens singing of impending doom Рbut the hapless white characters are heedless of their warnings.

It is the jive-talking, blues-singing, honky-eating plant which inspires the most racial discomfort for some spectators, and indeed, the plant’s perceived "blackness" becomes problematic with the changed ending. Again, the parallel with the music business is apt. Like a record executive exploiting his discovery's "talents," Seymour sees Audrey II only as a vehicle to material success, never recognizing the plant’s own will until it is far too late. Levi Stubbs, in a 1987 People interview, offers this insight to his portrayal of the plant: "He [Oz] said the plant starts out sorta sweet and kind, then gets sly and devious and mean....In the music business you have quite a few people like that, so I put those people in my mind." He also puts any hints of racism to bed, saying, "If I thought the part was derogatory to anyone, they couldn't have paid me enough to take it. Sure, a lot of black people have big lips, but this is a plant, for crying out loud! That attitude is stupid."

Little Shop turns on its head the familiar trope of the "magical Negro" (see The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Family Man, Hitch, Reign Over Me, The Green Mile and others - wherein a wise, even mystical black man is the catalyst for a white man's return to a more authentic, centered and soulful mode of existence. The cultural roots of this backhanded compliment of a plot device are outside the scope of this essay, but suffice it to say that Audrey II performs exactly the opposite function for Seymour, under guise of "liberating" him. By encouraging Seymour's aggression, avarice and self-serving moral relativism, the plant traps him in a web of money, fame and self-deceit. "I’m yo' willin' slave," the plant wheedles. Seymour, of course, takes the vegetable’s servility for granted – only later does he realize that it is he who is the servant.

I prefer to read Little Shop of Horrors as a tale of the servants turning on the masters - not too far from what certain segments of the white population of the era might have perceived happening in real life. I don’t propose that the play or the film was intended as a racial parable, but the implications are there nonetheless. The anarchic finale could be seen as mirroring the Watts riots, a Freudian "return of the repressed" in its most literal and explosive terms. Of course, in the revisionist version of Little Shop of Horrors, that explosion never comes, blackness is repressed, and the lovers escape to the safety of a white suburb. But what’s that there in the shrubbery? You can’t keep a good monster down. Look out, white parents – here comes hip-hop!

1 comment:

Janette said...

This is so true! And it most definitely persists today in mainstream media. Thank you for pointing this out and interrupting the status quo.