John Hughes Films Weren't Racially Diverse, but That's OK

09/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Filmmaker John Hughes was no Thornton Wilder. The characters he envisaged weren't of the universal Our Town variety, and the halls of the so-called all-American high schools in which many of his innocuous comedy-dramas played-out were sorely homogeneous. It's true, he was responsible for other touchstones in movie culture (Mr. Mom's "220 ... 221, whatever it takes," and the Macaulay Culkin Home Alone face-slap, for starters), but Hughes' main legacy will always be that familiar string of influential 1980s flicks about middle-class white teens: Sixteen Candles, the Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Pretty in Pink, and Some Kind of Wonderful.

Why the Samantha Bakers, Allison Reynoldses, Cameron Fryes, and Amanda Joneses of Hughes' world struck a chord with Gen X is no mystery; while 1970s TV and film producers attempted to tear down the myths of their parents' "Leave It to Beaver"-era depictions of domesticity and replace them with "chin-up" coping strategies for the realities of modern home life (like divorce and joblessness in shows as disparate "Good Times" and "Family"), the 1980s were all about life outside the home: Working moms in 9-to-5. Dads at "Cheers." Latchkey grammar-schoolers in E.T.. But what about that hot new marketing demographic -- teens? Well, where else would they hang out, if not at school? And John Hughes captured life at school better than anyone had done, up to that point.

While my own high school experience wouldn't have been complete without Prince's "When Doves Cry" and Whodini's "Five Minutes of Funk" thumpin' from a friend's Impala in the parking lot outside the cafeteria each morning (or my school's marching band doin' drumlines from Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock"), the fact that Hughes' films were so definitively Caucasian never dawned on me at the time (my African American girlfriends said they liked Pretty in Pink as much as I did). I just loved everything about Hughes' movies, and I didn't know any better. Fighting at the lockers, crying in the restroom, smoking in the gym, avoiding bullies, defending your outfit to a white male principal who thought all students should be cookie-cutter preppies -- what kid, black or white and born in the late-1960s, couldn't relate to that? John Hughes taught American teens that it's OK to be yourself, even if that self is a white middle-class high school student. Because that's your life. And when you're 14, you can't choose how diverse your school is. You're a kid. You just go, and you deal.

True, some of Hughes' films involved an exclusivity that seems outdated in today's more diverse movie landscape. And Hughes' point of view may have blindly omitted race from the picture, but that doesn't mean his stories about high school life should be dismissed. Let's face it, some art just isn't meant to "go there" about race.

By honing in so closely on the pop-cultural specificity of the lives of teens, John Hughes not only created his own genre of films, but also suffused them with an aspirational cool-factor that combined fashion, music, and angst in a manner oft-replicated since. In other words, every generation has its outcasts/heroes -- the James Deans, the Kerouacs, the Cobains. But only kids of the 1980s have Duckie Dale. In Pretty in Pink, Hughes never tells us about Duckie's family -- he doesn't have to, because the wing-tip shoes, stripped-bare mattress, thrift-store jacket, and Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness" do all the talking. And when New Order's "Thieves Like Us" kicks in as Duckie takes his ragtag bike for a spin past Andie's house, just forget it. For a 17-year-old kid spurned by love in 1986, that was cool incarnate. Andie Walsh may have been from the wrong side of the tracks, but who wouldn't want to adore a redhead who lives in a house with Mondrian posters and a stash of sewing notions and vintage fabrics, even if her dad sits around in a wife-beater all day? When it came to the ultimate micro-cultivation of Hughes' character cool, though, Ferris Bueller took the cake: the hot girlfriend, the stately suburban two-story, Bryan Ferry on his bedroom wall and the trophy-rigged doorknob parent trap? "Oh Yeah," indeed.

The music in his films wasn't groundbreaking, but the way Hughes (and his music directors) bound the music to each character's psyche and story was fresh and unforgettable. That's why, to this day, when we hear OMD's "If You Leave," we think of Molly Ringwald kissing Andrew McCarthy; or when we see a Seurat painting, we automatically hear the Dream Academy's instrumental version of the Smith's "Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want" and see Matthew Broderick, Mia Sara, and Alan Ruck staring at the pointillism.

Who was John Hughes? We may never know much about the man, but spend a few hours rewinding Farmer Ted in Sixteen Candles or Watts in Some Kind of Wonderful or Iona in Pretty in Pink, and you'll discover that Hughes' films didn't have to be diverse to have heart.