Nigeria: Hairspray - Lessons Learned

Last Updated: 16 February 2014
Article by Olajide Oyewole LLP

Hairspray the 2007 film, is a musical comedy packed with Hollywood heavy weights like John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken and Queen Latifah. It tells the story of Tracy Turnblad, a white, slightly overweight happy go lucky teenager growing up in the City of Baltimore in America in the 1960s. Tracy's mom Edna Turnblad is played brilliantly by John Travolta ... yes, John Travolta plays a woman in this film and he/she has some of the best comedic lines ever. Christopher Walken plays the role of his/her love struck husband.

The remarkable thing about the film is that while watching and laughing at the antics and jokes, enjoying the music and so on, you begin to realise that Hairspray is actually a history lesson about America in the 1960s. Through song and dance the viewer gets a good sense of America at that time. From the Jackie Kennedy hairstyles to the checked, plaid and bold colours of the fashion in those days. You also see pregnant women smoking in public places and cars without seat-belts. How times have changed!

The most significant history lesson in this musical however is the story of racism and segregation in America just over 4 decades ago. This was a time when segregation was the practice and norm. In Tracy's school, black children were segregated from white children. This clearly demonstrated at a school dance where a rope was used to separate the dancing black children from the dancing white children. After Tracy is selected to appear in a local song and dance television show, she and her like-minded pals through a series of sometimes hilariously funny antics are able to break down racial barriers and black and white children become integrated.

As serious as the issues are, the music and comedy make the film very entertaining. It showed the reality of black people living in America in the 1960s. When my children watched this film a couple of years ago, they learnt a bit about racism, something they are actually shielded from in an all black country like Nigeria. For children who have grown up oblivious to racism they learnt an important lesson in Americas' history from this musical. The 'I Have a Dream' speech by Martin Luther King took on a new meaning for them.

History books, biographies and similar text, have very important stories to tell and not everyone has the time to read them and or for that matter are even aware of them. So the use of films and even documentaries to tell these stories is brilliant. It is nothing new and has proven to be a highly effective way to teach history and indeed convey a point of view. Alex Haileys' Roots (slavery) Jeremy Isaacs' The War of the World (Britain's involvement in the world war) and Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List (the rescue of Jews in Germany during the 2nd world war) are all very serious and critically acclaimed works (none of which are actually musicals though) that have through film told very important stories.

Notable musicals that come to mind include Singin' in the Rain with the late great Gene Kelly which tells the story of the transition of silent films to talkies. This film with its wonderful songs showed the suspicion with which talkies were viewed and it also showed how careers were made and in many instances destroyed. The Sound of Music is another example of a classic musical. The underlying story in this beautiful film is the Nazi occupation of Austria during the 2nd world war. Bride and Prejudice is an Indian musical adaptation by British filmmaker Gurinder Chadha of Jane Austen's book Pride and Prejudice. This hilarious and entertaining comedy gives us an insight into India and its culture.

Nigeria is a country with thousands of stories to tell. Whether it is from our history or our numerous and great story tellers, we have plenty of stories that can be adapted to films and also musicals. One need only look at recent works such as Chimamanda Adichies' book Half of a Yellow Sun which is a work of fiction set around a very real and dark aspect of our own history. This book has now been made into a film and at the time of writing this article it is expected to be released in theatres soon.

Another recent Nigerian example is Uche Nwokedis' stage play, Kakadu the Musical a work of fiction, set around true events in Nigeria's history, the civil war. One of the things that made Kakadu so powerful was the use of the song and dance of the day to tell the story. Every night, audiences sang along hits of the 60s like My Boy Lollipop, Jamaica Farewell and The Twist. The story caused deep reflection for some as they remembered what was a truly dark time in our history. For others, it was a time of learning. Kakadu can take credit for teaching history to some of the younger audience in a way that they are not likely to forget for sometime to come.

The wealth of information and snippets of history from films and musicals is incredible. However the fact that books and music are works of copyright cannot be ignored. Accordingly before any book is adapted to a film or play, permission is required from the copyright owner. The same applies to any music that you may hear in a film of stage play. While the Marley family approved Kevin McDonalds critically acclaimed documentary on Bob Marley, he definitely required formal clearance/permission for the music he used. The producers of Kakadu acquired the necessary licensing for all music performed on stage.

Nigerian film makers, historians, story tellers etc must be encouraged to collaborate and tell more of our stories using the medium of film and the musical. Provided the legal financial, production and distribution issues are met (and there are a number of specialist advisors available) there is a readymade audience for these stories and this translates to a market from which revenue can be generated. Just like Hairspray, good quality films and musicals will stand the test of time and serve as a visual record of whatever story is being told. So what are we waiting for? This writer is on standby for the next history lesson from a film or musical.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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