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Critic's Notebook

Do the white thing

In 'Hairspray,' it's song and dance -- and race

The new film musical "Hairspray" has one of the funniest jokes I've seen about the ludicrousness of segregation. At a dance contest for "The Corny Collins Show," a local TV program in 1960s Baltimore, a rope is strung across the room, and the white kids dance on one side, the black kids on the other. The joke is literal, but it's good: They're doing the Mashed Potato with separate but equal exuberance.

"Hairspray" is about integrating black and white, fat and lean, pretty and plain -- and the folly of keeping them apart. Its thematic buoyancy is remarkable. When the film works, it's surprisingly smart, giving us something we rarely see at the movies: a story of a white person discovering race.

The movie is like its chubby heroine, Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky): good-doing and relentlessly perky. It's upbeat about discrimination. Not only does Tracy awaken to the fact of discrimination; she sees right away that it's ridiculous but also that it's a real fact of life that's either got to be accepted or overcome. As a teenager in civil rights-era Baltimore, she's naive enough to find segregation outrageous. She relates to black people as her peers: They like to dance, too. Her interest isn't romantic: She lusts after the blue-eyed, black-haired comic-strip of a boy who dances on the show. But Tracy recognizes that fair is fair. The most exciting, innovative, and all-around best dancers belong on TV. One guess who they are. She's the only person in town innocent enough to say so.

Some of the jokes about segregation and race are inspired. Tracy gets sent to detention, where, hilariously, she's the only white, and where (also hilariously) the black kids treat the classroom like a juke joint. Meanwhile, the blonde cutie pie (Brittany Snow) on "Corny Collins" has been trained to cherish her whiteness by her mother (Michelle Pfeiffer), who practices a dour, withering sort of racism.

But when Tracy starts spending so much time with the black kids, you realize the movie has but one note for them. They sing in the key of civil rights. However peppy, their songs are dull with importance. There's no humor in them, no dirt or wit -- unlike the movie's opening number or the one Pfeiffer has about her (white) supremacy. It's all, "woe is we" -- but with exclamatory showbiz panache, of course.

"Hairspray" reduces the black characters to foot soldiers in their own struggle. A march on the TV station broadcasting "The Corny Collins Show" is Tracy's idea -- even though the movie's putative community leader is Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah), the host of Negro Day on "Corny Collins." She looks genuinely surprised when Tracy suggests the march. The filmmakers and songwriters don't seem to have imagined humor for the black characters, despite the fact that Latifah seems as cheery as ever and Elijah Kelley, as the best dancer in town, lights up all his scenes. Were you to peel back these characters' blackness, you'd get a brick wall. I'm still not sure what to make of the sequence where Maybelle seduces Tracy's mother, Edna (John Travolta), with plates of greens and chicken.

The film is based on John Waters's 1988 non-musical of the same name. His film was about the grotesquerie of racism. It was realist and absurdist at the same time, culminating in a kind of violent farce. The whole thing felt personal and remembered (Waters grew up in Baltimore and there was an actual incident involving the integration of a similar TV show there). It had an extremely specific, aggressively non-commercial point of view: It still feels a little dangerous. Released now and made in the same wry manner but with the musical's cast, Waters's movie probably would remain a cult item -- its iconoclasm holds up. The musical's homogenized shininess, on the other hand, is attractive and harmless. Equally treated or not, everybody in this "Hairspray" looks thrilled to be there.

Tracy's enthusiastic awareness makes a lot of the musical interesting. Whiteness is a privilege she doesn't want -- or one that everybody should have, too. She facilitates an interracial relationship and kills segregation on Baltimore's airwaves. But racial empathy has crippled the musical's imagination -- the songs and character development aren't exactly equal. This is a common problem in Hollywood. The black people get to speak for themselves, but they haven't had anything new to say in 50 years.

A kind of guilt takes over "Hairspray." For instance, one hates to say it but the selection of a black victor of the show's big dance competition at the end is a gag. The audience decides with its phone calls. Little Inez (Taylor Parks), Maybelle's spunk-machine of a daughter, is hardly the best dancer in the contest (Tracy is), but she makes the best symbol. The movie suggests that desegregation is an affirmative action.

Like a certain extremely popular TV talent show, the audience doesn't vote on ability alone. They're voting for change. So "Hairspray" the musical becomes a progressive pop-culture fantasy different from the one in the rearview mirror of Waters's movie. "Everyday should be Negro Day," Tracy tells her fellow detainees. By the end of the movie, it is.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/ movies/blog.

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