The complexities of race & motherhood scorch the screen in Little Fires Everywhere

The Hulu mini-series explores the subtleties of racism with nuanced dialogue and strong performances

The series stands out with a strong story.
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I binged all eight episodes of Little Fires Everywhere in two days and marveled at the intelligence and artistry of the show for weeks after. 

Starring Reese Witherspoon as Elena Richardson and Kerry Washington as Mia Warren, Little Fires Everywhere depicts the dangerous subtlety of racism through a compelling narrative of motherhood and understanding. 

Set in the 1990s, the show centers around Mia and her teenage daughter Pearl’s move to Shaker Heights—a quiet, suburban paradise in Ohio—as Mia seeks inspiration for a new art project. Elena rents a property to the pair, and Pearl quickly becomes infatuated with the Richardson’s expensive lifestyle. 

The captivating intensity between Elena and Mia makes Little Fires Everywhere impossible to stop watching. Elena is the image of second-wave feminism in the 90s: she’s committed to balancing her career and children, donating to charities, and helping families from difficult backgrounds—but refuses to acknowledge the fact that feminism isn’t a one-size-fits-all concept. Mia, an enigmatic and brilliant Black artist, recognizes the intersectionality of her identity and refuses to simplify herself to fit Elena’s narrative. 

Conversations between the two are a dance around race and class. Elena can’t understand why Mia refuses her generosity with indifference and hostility; Mia actively points out Elena’s ignorance, challenging her in a way no one else ever has. Their relationship is further intensified by the tension of their children gravitating toward one another. 

Threaded throughout the story is the ironic reference to Shaker Heights as a community valuing diversity and equality above all else, despite the undercutting sense of superiority displayed by its white residents. Instances of racism and microaggressions spill out of Elena’s mouth unknowingly, so subtle that they’re often distracted from by her smile or perfectly blown out hair. 

Elena is unwilling to acknowledge the differences between her and Mia out of fear of coming across as racist or discriminatory. Despite her good intentions, this veil of ignorance actually leads her to make deeply offensive comments and refuse to confront her internalized biases and privilege.

However, the relationship between the two women isn’t solely defined by race. Racial tensions are heightened by the fact that Mia’s chaotic character and lifestyle sparks a fire in Elena that’s been dimmed for years. Mia has pursued her artistic vision and passion with every cell in her body, while Elena feels she may have settled for a mundane life, never bold enough to take meaningful risks. 

Because their lives are on opposite ends of every spectrum, Elena’s discomfort toward Mia comes out in spurts of internalized racism disguised as charity. For example, Elena attempts to help Mia and Pearl’s financial situation by offering Mia a position cooking and cleaning at her home. Mia sees the oppressive historical narrative of Black women working as maids for white families, while Elena prides herself on her generous offer. 

Their individual identities are also represented in their parenting style, with the two women consistently judging one another’s relationships with their daughters. 

It’s fascinating to watch Elena’s character unravel: her desperate need for stability and control over her life is compulsive. She’s the type of woman to schedule sex, measure exactly four ounces of wine per night, and colour code the family calendar. 

The show may be a touch melodramatic and more than a little intense, but that’s what makes it so exciting. For people who loved Big Little Lies, Euphoria, and Scandal, Little Fires won’t disappoint. 

Racial tensions are ingrained into a more holistic narrative of belonging, identity, and understanding, creating a robust and realistic portrayal of the intricacies of forging relationships between people with drastically different identities. The show offers a lens for self-reflection: viewers will often see their own flaws and ideals reflected in characters who consistently disappoint, impress, and surprise them. 

The show delves into complicated issues naturally, weaving them together in a compelling web of nuanced cinematography, directing, and acting. It’s a must-watch for its artistic elements and, more importantly, a better understanding of how racism manifests in an environment that looks idealistic and inclusive from a distance. 

As characters find themselves pitted against each other and relationships develop, Little Fires Everywhere explores the limits of performative inclusivity and what it takes for racism to slip out in moments of anger or weakness. 

 

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