Hulu's 'Little Fires Everywhere' is a searing look at race and privilege
Early on in the third episode of Hulu’s new miniseries, Little Fires Everywhere, based on Celeste Ng's 2017 novel of the same name, the Richardsons, a white well-to-do family of six, gather around the dinner table. Lexi, the eldest daughter, laments her imagined exclusion from the Million Woman March — a 1997 protest in Philadelphia organized by and for Black women — she contrasts it to the Million Man March that her mother attended as a child.
“It was amazing,” Elena Richardson, the matriarch of the family played by Reese Witherspoon, concurs. “Young, old, white, African-American, religious leaders, activists, union members, just a beautiful blend of people — including Dr. King, of course.” Self-satisfied at her part in this moral advancement, Elena grins at the two Black people in the room: Lexi’s boyfriend Brian and Pearl, a teenage newcomer to town.
The dinner scene, like many moments in the miniseries, can feel overwrought, with white character's hubris almost too painfully on display. But in Elena’s naive vision of a utopian ideal of the country — and her perceived integral part in that vision — there's a kernel of what makes the show feel strikingly pertinent in the current political moment.
Elena’s worldview is molded out of Shaker Heights, the town in Ohio that the show takes place in and where she was raised (Shaker Heights is a real city that Celeste Ng grew up in herself). Shaker both is and isn’t your ordinary white picket fence suburb — it is a safe, picturesque town of largely white, upper middle class families, but one that is aggressive both in its ordered planning (homeowners are fined if the grass on their lawns grow above a certain height) and its pride for being a progressive haven of America.
The miniseries is set in motion when Mia (Kerry Washington) arrives with her daughter, Pearl, and upends this dynamic. Elena is a compulsively rule-following child of Shaker who plans all aspects of her life down to the days she and her husband have sex. Mia enters as a bohemian artist, but what's most telling is the lens through which Elena views her. She sees her primarily as a poor single Black mother. An opportunity for charity.
Elena rents out the Richardsons’ spare house to Mia and Pearl, and one of the Richardson children, Moody, befriends Pearl and quickly introduces her into the world of Shaker. Elena eventually offers Mia a job to be their housekeeper, a position Mia initially balks at for its racist implications but ultimately accepts in order to keep an eye on Pearl as she is swept up into the Richardsons’ world. The show can be uneven in its treatment of the novel’s original arc — it lacks the intricately laid out spool of tension and conflict that propelled the novel’s politics with a delectable narrative heft and urgency — but it is most striking in the dimensions it adds to the conversation around privilege and how it warps our conceptions of our own righteousness.
The original clashing between Mia and Elena in the novel was one largely borne of class — both women were white, but of distinctly different socioeconomic circumstances. Of course, any conversation around access can seldom afford to be race-neutral. In the show, Mia is Black, and Elena makes a concerted effort — renting out the house to her despite her reservations and offering her a job — to help out what she sees as a working class single Black mother in need of her help. It’s what any Shaker citizen ought to do. Later on in the show, Lexi trots out her mother’s progressive self-conception to defend herself from accusations of racism from her boyfriend: her mother marched with Dr. King, her grandmother helped integrate Shaker schools — how could she be racist? Similarly, Elena is defensive when Mia pushes back at her offers as a kind of white savior: “Isn’t it more racist to not offer her the job because of her race?” she defensively tells her husband, who assures her that she is being admirably generous.
Eventually, Elena’s well-meaning helping hand clashes with the show’s central conflict, to revealing effect. Mia, who works part-time at a Chinese restaurant, eventually learns from her co-worker, a poor Chinese immigrant mother named Bebe, of the desperate, heartrending decision she had made one night of leaving her newborn daughter at a fire station after running out of options and fearing for the baby’s well-being. But after finding stabler ground, Bebe can no longer find her daughter, until Mia eventually learns that Elena’s friends, the McCulloughs, had ended up adopting the child. Mia tells Bebe, and a court-battle over the rightful claim to the baby and the definitions of motherhood ensues.
Bill, Elena’s husband and a lawyer, ends up representing the McCulloughs, and Elena becomes spitefully entangled with the case after she discovers Mia’s involvement with Bebe. Her initial open-hearted generosity quickly dissipates, and it seems, was only a matter of her bolstering the self-satisfaction of her own magnanimity. “White women always want to be friends with their maid,” Mia says to Elena, in a sparks-flying blow-up halfway through the miniseries. (Similarly, in an indictment of sorts of a particular brand of white feminism, Lexi uses Pearl more than once to shape a narrative of oppression for herself).
What’s most revealing, though, are the skewed ideological implications at play in Elena’s worldview. She sees Bebe’s decisions as that of a bad mother, and the same for Mia, especially after Elena uncovers damning secrets about her past. But at the heart of her anger is her implicit perception of people like them as viruses to the Shaker way — law-breakers and oversteppers of the rules of fairness. Rather disconcertingly, Elena can serve as an indictment for many viewers — someone borne of a privileged existence who fashions herself as an active advocate of the ideal of a fair, egalitarian version of America, but, crucially, also believes that such a reality is already present in our existing structures. Mia and Bebe, in her eyes, are vandals of the righteous, delicately constructed status quo, not victims because of it.
It’s not much of a stretch to liken it to the last few months of our political grapplings. While Elena reminisces proudly over the Million Man March, “part of her shuddered at the scenes on the television screen,” Ng writes in the novel of her reaction to the chaos during this politically turbulent period. “Grainiy scenes, but no less terrifying: grocery stores ablaze, smoke billowing from their rooftops, walls gnawed to studs by flame.” Deep down, Elena fears what moderates like Pete Buttegieg denounced just weeks ago on Twitter as the “revolutionary politics of the ‘60s.” And it’s this same fear of the so-called “radical,” paradigm-shattering nature of Bernie Sanders’ campaign and the naive desire to revert back to Uncle Joe Biden’s safely comforting status quo — the one that Shaker Heights believes created a perfect America — that has shaped what is now the likely path for the Democratic Party in the upcoming election.
Elena’s view is a particularly perilous strain of American blindness — one that proudly brandishes notions of liberalism as a badge, while, consciously or not, upholding the hegemonic systems that suffocate those like Bebe. “People like Bebe Chow don’t win,” Bill tells Elena at one point. At this point in the show, his tone strikes partly as a grim statement of reality. For Elena, the remark comforts her as proof of a system of justice working. “Did you have to burn down the old to make way for the new?” she wonders in the novel. She can’t fathom what has pushed so many to light the flames.