Even with virtually all-white casts, John Hughes' films offered valuable lessons for black teenagers

Like most teenagers in the 1980s, particularly those from Chicago, I was a big fan of John Hughes' films. And even though none of his main characters looked like me, his films helped me see through some of the race and class divisions that define Chicago as much as his films do.
Even as an African-American teenager, the lack of black faces in
Hughes' films didn't stop me from wanting to see them, and it didn't
keep me from enjoying them.

Don't get me wrong, I definitely would have appreciated seeing more
black actors in his films, and I was annoyed that
these wildly popular films--set in my hometown--didn't offer any kind
of view of life from my side of town. But Hughes' films were valuable to me because they helped expose the reality of white suburban life.

The communities featured in his films were completely foreign to me. In my mind, life was glamorous out there: the people, the homes, the schools and the communities themselves were better than the ones I encountered where I lived. But Hughes' films showed me that life was no more perfect for suburban white teens than it was for me or any of my peers growing up on the South Side of Chicago.

Certainly there were experiences that we didn't share: I'd never vacationed in Europe or eaten at five-star restaurants, while the teens in Hughes' films never had to worry about which gang territory they were crossing when they walked to the neighborhood park.

Still, Hughes' films showed me that our lives were far more alike than I had ever dreamed. And to this day, I reflect upon that fact as a journalist writing about and researching issues of race and poverty in the Chicago metro area.

Hughes showed me that white teens in the suburbs struggled with
identity, confidence and family issues--just like I did. Even if I couldn't identify with their surroundings, I could identify with their struggles.

In Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Cameron Frye was pained by the lack of a
meaningful relationship with his father. I shared that pain. Even with
the million-dollar suburban home and the luxury sports car, Frye was no
more free of that pain than I was growing up in a single-parent home in
a South Side apartment worth far less.

As a kid from a working-class family, Andie Walsh from Pretty In Pink worried about measuring up to her more affluent peers. I could identify with her as a kid who didn't get to wear his first pair of name-brand gym shoes or jeans until his junior year.

And in Weird Science, a movie I saw no less than 30 times, Gary Wallace and Wyatt Donnelly were my boys. As a teenager who was too nerdy to hang with the cool kids (although I
must say that I was in no way as nerdy as those guys) and too shy to
talk to the girls, I really identified with that pair.

In 1991, when asked about not having black characters in major roles, Hughes told The New York Times that he didn't know the black experience. But his films still resonated with many African Americans because we're not as different as we might believe.

Perhaps there could be similar lessons for white audiences, if they were to branch out and view films with mostly black actors. A couple of classic Chicago stories to consider would be Love Jones, a romantic comedy about two young black professionals that features an amazing soundtrack, and Roll Bounce, a coming-of-age story about a South Side teen coping with the death of his mother and showing off some of the best roller skating moves you'll ever see on film.

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  • first of all, i hate creating an account just to leave a comment.
    second, your article made me realize something: John Hughes' excuse about why he didn't use more black actors in his movies has no merit. not only did you prove that the "black experience" was the same experience his characters portrayed because you could relate to them, you said it. as a result, i look differently at his movies now.

    i would actually like to read the whole New York Time article.

  • In reply to nykeya:

    nykeya, thanks for the comment. You can find the NY Times article at http://tinyurl.com/mpo92b

    Here's an excerpt:

    Certainly any criticism of Hughes's work so far has to include the point that his everyman characters have rather narrow profiles. They are usually young, usually from the kind of upper-middle-class neighborhood where no one worries about paying the electric bill, usually estranged from their parents -- and always white. There has never been a significant black character in any Hughes film. "I'm not going to pretend I know the black experience," Hughes says, though when he's confronted with the fact that there have been almost no black characters in his films, even in roles that would be race neutral, he concedes that the charge is "an entirely proper argument." "Maybe I've been wrong," he says, "through shortsightedness or whatever. But I'll get there."

  • Good stuff, Alden. I really liked this post.

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