So, I was thinking about it, what bugged me about Footloose, which I still think you should go see. And again, I keep coming back to this thought that everyone involved in this production is better than the source material. Especially when it comes to casting choices (though, I might have just gone ahead and let Hannah McGinley somehow turn Footloose into a one-woman show, because she’s a firecracker).
I mean, for a play being put on in a library up in Metro Center… well, it benefits from the truth of Nashville, which is that there’s no lack of extremely talented folks. But whenever you stop the music to focus on the acting, you are inevitably wishing that the play gave these folks more to work with. Cary Street, who played Ren’s mom, and Susan Taylor, who plays the Reverand’s wife, do a great job of conveying to the audience a lot of information about how conflicted and wound up and oppressed their characters are, but they have so little time in which to do it. I already said how good Ed Amatrudo is at his part, when he finally has something more to do than just be the bad guy.
But the most brilliant/problematic casting decision was to cast Deonte Warren as Ren. Don’t get me wrong–he’s great fun to watch and conveys that kind of pent-up youthful combination of rage and exuberance.
(And can I just say that the more I think about this, the more I do think that this show would be great fun to take Supermousey and a couple of her friends to, or Slarti’s kids? There are some “shits” and a little sexual innuendo, but if your kids have ever watched MTV for longer than 3 seconds, they’ve seen much, much worse.)
Where were we?
Oh, yes, my point.
Warren as Ren.
It makes explicit what was, in the movie, and I imagine in renditions of the musical where the male lead is white, implicit–what being “from the big city” meant, for better or for worse, to those of us growing up in small towns in the 80s. It was kind of a “holy shit, of course” moment for me, but in my defense, I haven’t seen or thought about Footloose in ages.
But there it is. The kid from the city who listens to that music with drums and who has rhythm and can dance and who only has a mom and who’s pissed off and can’t be controlled and doesn’t respect authority. Ren has always been “black.” (And I put black in quotes deliberately because obviously Ren is not black, but I think, and so do most film critics, that movies give us a safe way to talk about the things we’re feeling anxious about, often without having to acknowledge that that’s what we’re up to. See the Batman controversy, for further proof*.)
So, while Ren’s just implicitly *black*, the movie and the musical move forward under the conceit that there will be some way to reconcile Ren into the community–which is, of course, “white.” The “white” folks can learn to loosen up and dance and enjoy music again and Ren can settle into the community on his own terms, finally figuring out how to shape it to meet his needs.
(Whew, you could have fun with a feminist critique of that plot, couldn’t you? How all of the women are obviously miserable under the control of the town Patriarchs, but how they have no effective means to rebel on their own terms and can only hope that the new Patriarch, Ren in this case, puts in place a less stifling regime.)
Ren, when played by a white guy, is almost the opposite of the magical negro–in that he teaches white people to love black culture without having to actually like any individual black people.
But the second Ren is played by a black guy, like I said, all those things become explicit.
And that to me is both the genius and the problem. I love that it makes you confront head-on that this is a story, in many ways, about race. But there was a reason that, in 1984, they didn’t make the movie explicitly about race–in that it wouldn’t not have mattered that he was black.
So, on the one hand, it’s cool to see it played as if it’s no big deal that he’s black.
But on the other hand, seeing as how it makes explicit what the subtext of the story is, it seems really, really strange.
*I would argue that, while the Batman as George Bush theory is interesting, it’s bullshit. Not because it’s not true. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but because at the level this shit works, it usually can only be understood in retrospect, like waking from a dream. Like Ren has always been coded black, but you only notice it years later or how Top Gun is all about homosexual and homosocial desire–even the “woman’s” name in Charlie, folks, come on!–but you don’t see it at first. Yes, surely there’s something going on with Batman which is speaking to a lot of folks on some level and maybe ten years from now it will be obvious that it was about finding some way to redeem George Bush, but I don’t know. To me, it sounds like wishful thinking.