‘Little Fires Everywhere’ sparks exploration of race and motherhood

The Hulu miniseries initiates conversation about the universality of motherhood against the backdrop of race

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Actress Kerry Washington plays Mia Warren in the Hulu drama "Little Fires Everywhere" alongside co-star Reese Witherspoon

Courtesy Daniel Benavides

Hulu released three installations of its eight-episode series “Little Fires Everywhere” Wednesday, March 18. Based on Celeste Ng’s 2017 novel of the same name, the series follows the lives of the Richardson family upon the arrival of Mia Warren and her daughter, exploring how the two families intertwine. 

Taking place in the wealthy and white suburbs of Shaker Heights, Ohio, Elena Richardson, played by Reese Witherspoon, is the seemingly perfect mother, who maintains a part-time job as a journalist while also managing to fulfill her duties as the mother of four children. Additionally, serving as the landlord for an apartment unit, Elena rents the unit to newcomer Mia Warren, played by Kerry Washington, and her daughter Pearl, played by Lexi Underwood, igniting the connection between the two families. 

Set in 1997, the show gives viewers a front-row seat into one example of how race was discussed in a wealthy white home in the late ‘90s. By the white characters frequently claiming they would never “make something about race,” it seems that this approach to discussing race is actually to avoid mentioning it at all. For the Richardson family, race is seen as a factor that complicates a situation, since the family typically chooses to operate with an attitude of color-blindness. 

Although this attitude helps the Richardsons to feel that they are a welcoming ally to Mia and Pearl, comments that fail to acknowledge the harm caused by racism prove their inhospitality. Elena’s daughter Lexie, played by Jade Pettyjohn, serves as a prime example of this ignorance by neglecting to acknowledge the scope of discrimination — she takes Pearl’s personal story of discrimination and uses it as her own for her college application. Additionally, when Lexie confesses this to her boyfriend, her lack of sensitivity and failure to understand the gravity of her actions becomes the breaking point of their relationship.

In comparison to her daughter, whose ignorance seems to reflect poorly on her character, Elena’s racially insensitive comments may seem easier to forgive, since they paint her as a wealthy, suburban housewife whose ignorance is simply a reflection of the time. However, Elena reveals her willingness to listen when her suspicions and accusations are silenced by Mia’s honesty in explaining that, as a black single mother, she is frequently denied as a tenant. Fans of “Big Little Lies” will recognize Witherspoon’s character as having more complexity than her suburban counterparts, despite her superficial facade. While this compassion and neurotic need to fix Mia’s life imply elements of a white savior narrative, this series proves itself to be much more than that by giving Mia a significant say in how the story is told.

While maintaining a mysterious background evidently filled with trauma, Mia introduces herself as an artist. She chooses subjects within each temporary residence before moving on to her next project in a new location. Throughout her interactions with Elena, Mia firmly maintains control of her situation, refusing to accept Elena’s help or sympathy, and instead creating her own solutions. Mia only accepts Elena’s job offer as housekeeper after discovering Pearl’s discontent with both their fast-paced lifestyle and Mia’s own unwillingness to make their residence permanent.

While the intermingling of the Warrens and the Richardsons initially stirs chaos and drama, the show is, at its heart, about motherhood and a mother’s struggle to truly understand and fully give to one’s child what they need. This often contrasts with the mothers’ own notions about what they consider to be a normal adolescent experience, forcing them to abandon their way of thinking in some form. While Elena and Mia clash on most issues, in a drunken moment of vulnerable honesty, Elena and Mia divulge their concern about feeling disconnected from their daughters, crafting the roots of a quiet friendship. However, as Elena and Mia welcome each other’s daughters with open arms, the intertwined women hint at the progression of a more sinister element of the remainder of the series. 

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