REVIEW: ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ (2020) Finally Portrays the Well-Intentioned White Lady as the Villain That She Truly Is

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

“It’s about time we all light little fires everywhere.”

Little Fires Everywhere is Hello Sunshine’s latest series and solidifies the production company’s prominence in the industry. It is the beacon that proves that when you include everyone at the table, bigger and better things come to light and get made. Little Fires Everywhere is a show that, at its core, forces our whitewashed society to analyse our own complicit involvement in the structural systems that allow racism to pervade. 

Buckle up, because this series is one fiery investigation and reflection into how white people have not only allowed, but continue to allow a racist society to pervade. And its solution? Well, maybe all we have left is to burn down this house that we’ve all been complicit in building, lest we risk becoming the generation before us, and the one before that, and the one before that …

Based on the book by Celeste Ng, this intricate story follows the lives of two families powered by two extremely formidable women. Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington portray Elena Richardson and Mia Warren. Richardson, the highly strung middle class perfectionist who measures out her wine intake each night; and Warren, the travelling artist whose history is seemingly a mystery. When these two incredible actresses – both at the height of their career – meet, it’s unrivalled, and stands as one of many reasons why this series is worth the watch. 

What unravels is a story that painstakingly takes its time to intricately mould its characters with care and authenticity. The subtleties that are portrayed in all of their interactions only build as the plot is revealed. You could argue that the first few episodes stand solely to build the foundations for these characters, and has left some critics feeling underwhelmed as a result, but this slow burn is necessary, and fundamental to the series’ success. 

While following these two families, the complex backstories that underline the foundations of the show as well as the racial themes that are very carefully and authentically constructed, we are introduced to Bebe Chow (Lu Huang). This much needed storyline showcases the complex discussion surrounding white privilege, demonstrating how damaging it is to our society. It lays bare how, regardless of the facts of the situation, white people are continually propped up and assisted by the legal system. In spite of morality and simply what is right and wrong in any given situation, a rich white family will always benefit. 

The result of this? The well intentioned white lady has finally been portrayed as the villain she truly is. While she masquerades herself as someone always trying to help, this show finally exposes her behaviour for what it truly is – how her intentions are always selfish, driven solely by her own desires with little regard, awareness or even empathy for how this privilege is not shared equally throughout society. It’s about time.

This show stands as an important entry point to discuss these fundamental atrocities of our world. If you want to confront the people in your family who still chant ‘all lives matter’ but are unsure how to broach the subject? This might be a good start. 

The film industry, of course, is no innocent player in this racist system. The fact it took the #OscarsSoWhite trend in 2016 to raise awareness of the industry’s whitewashing to the mainstream is ridiculous and stands to prove just how intrinsically racist our society is that this wasn’t noticed by the masses before a hashtag brought attention to it. 

In 2019, 28% of lead actors in films were people of colour in the US, making an increase of just 1% from the previous year but this is almost double the share recorded in 2016 according to Statista. To put this into a wider context, the proportion of ‘minorities’ in the US population in 2016 was 40%, a figure that continues to rise. Therefore, work still clearly needs to be done to balance out representation on-screen. As always, the figures behind the camera are even more dire. According to The UCLA DIversity Report (2020) people of color remained underrepresented on every industry employment front in 2019. They found that people of colour had 15.1% of film directors roles, 13.9% were writers and 9% were studio heads. The figures unfortunately (but unsurprisingly) are far worse for women and similarly doesn’t account for those in the LQBTQ+ community. The Selma (Dir. Ava DuVernay, 2015) cast and crew were told by members of the Academy that they were not going to vote for Selma in the Oscars because they wore ‘I can’t breathe’ t-shirts to their premiere to protest the death of Eric Garner who was killed by New York City police in 2014. And yet the Academy has the gall to state that they are ‘committed to progress’? It’s outrageous.  It’s about time we call out the film industry for what it truly is: racist. 

These points all stand to prove how vital the production of a show like Little Fires Everywhere is. That we need to do more to get shows like this made. That we have to bridge this gap because it is not good enough to only have a small minority of our population represented in our mainstream media. It is not good enough that only cis white straight people get to feel seen. 

Not only is the cast of Little Fires Everywhere more representative (BAME characters, that appear in 3 or more episodes, account for 36.8% of the cast) but the roles behind the camera are equally representative too with the three directors being Lynn Shelton, Nzingha Stewart and Michael Weaver. Out of the 9 writers on the show, 8 were women with at least 5 from BAME backgrounds. 

The result? This show not only has a more representative cast but the issues explored through these characters are far more intricate and truthful. It seems pretty simple: the more inclusion you have behind the camera, the greater the content produced in front of the camera that showcases a perspective that has been belittled and ignored for so long. Aren’t we all bored of the white guys perspective by now? 

Little Fires Everywhere is a show that is forcing white people to not only notice our complicity in this deep rooted systemic disgrace that forms the basis of how we operate on a daily basis, but to confront our involvement in it, and ultimately that if we don’t engage with this, acknowledge that we are an intrinsic part of the problem, and do everything within our power to change it, it is a system that will pervade. As with the characters in the show, we are forced to do something all white people should be doing now, we must confront our own whiteness, our inexcusable, hateful, deeply shameful ancestral past and how that affects how we operate in the world today. 

With this current atmosphere where white people are finally acknowledging the extent of how complicit we are in the racist structures that continue to uphold our system, maybe it’s about time we tear down the world we have created. Maybe it’s about time we took responsibility for that, and stop blaming our faults on ‘ignorance’ when that ignorance is inherently offensive in itself as it acknowledges that before these issues were pointed out to white people we were simply refusing to see them, an extremely uncomfortable truth to come to terms with in itself. Maybe, just maybe, it’s about time we all light little fires everywhere. To put it simply, we started this mess, to not help clean it up is to be part of the problem. 

Currently streaming on Amazon Prime

Series Creator: Liz Tigelaar

Actors: Reese Witherspoon, Kerry Washington, Lexi Underwood, Joshua Jackson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jade Pettyjohn, Megan Stott, Gavin Lewis, Jordan Elsass, Lu Huang, Stevonte Hart