"The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic." - Oscar Wilde
The 1998 film, Pleasantville, delves into some of the most important issues of the 1950s. Director Gary Ross stated, "This movie is about the fact that personal repression gives rise to larger political oppression. That when we're afraid of certain things in ourselves or we're afraid of change, we project those fears on to other things, and a lot of very ugly social situations can develop" (Johnson-Ott). In short, the film isn't just about the personal struggle for change, but the difficult alteration of society as a whole. As we change, society transforms, and so does television. It is a powerful, entertainment machine that influences the way we live and think.
The story begins by following the lives of two contemporary teenagers, David (Toby Maguire) and his twin sister, Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon). During their day at school they learn about several social problems such as the unemployment rate, the HIV virus, and the depletion of the ozone layer. These teens might believe these issues are beyond their control, but soon they will realize that it isn't that difficult to move beyond one's own boundaries.
David is a lone wolf and spends most of his time watching the 1950s sit-com, Pleasantville. Meanwhile, Jennifer is a flirtatious, social butterfly who will do anything for a date with the school's most popular hot shot. On the home front, their parents are in a messy divorce and the kids search for a desperate escape from reality. David eagerly looks forward to the Pleasantville marathon while Jennifer prepares for her date. The two fight over the TV remote and it accidentally breaks. A repairman, portrayed by The Andy Griffith Show co-star Don Knotts, magically comes knocking at the door. He presents them with a special remote. The two teens are suddenly teleported into a different era, one less complicated and a bit more pleasant. They arrive in the black-and-white world of Pleasantville.
David and Jennifer appear as Bud and Mary Sue Parker. In the kitchen, they are greeted by their TV parents, George (William H. Macy) and Betty (Joan Allen). George reads the newspaper and Betty prepares breakfast for the kids. The ginormous feast consisting of pancakes, waffles, eggs, bacon, ham, and much more is served to them in a ceremonial fashion. The house is stylishly decorated and designed with all of the modern conveniences of the 1950s.
Bud and Mary Sue realize that they must play along until they discover a way to return home. While walking to school they pass freshly cut lawns, white picket fences, identical suburban homes, and stylish vehicles decorated with flamboyant chrome "Gorp." Everything is flawless, clean, and simple. Life is perfect. There are no social problems or disasters of any kind. Everyone is middle-class, healthy, and white. And the basketball team makes every shot!
This phenomena soon changes when Bud and Mary Sue begin to disrupt the community's status quo. Mary Sue introduces sexuality to the town by laying around with her fictional boyfriend. This unusual behavior ultimately causes an endless domino effect of rebellion. To the dismay of many, the furniture store even starts selling double beds, which was quite scandalous for 1950s television. Mary Sue even tells Betty how to properly pleasure herself. This exploration eventually causes the tree in the front yard to catch fire. Since the cat-saving firemen are clueless, Bud has to step up and help them extinguish the blaze.
Bud slowly introduces art and literature into the community. The blank pages magically fill in as he explains the stories to his friends. Classic novels such as Catcher in the Rye, Moby Dick, and Huckleberry Finn are several of the books that are mentioned in the film. This obviously is referring to the strict literature censorship of these books that occurred during the 1950s and 1960s. After altering Pleasantville's universe, color begins to appear. Slowly but surely everything and everyone bursts into vibrant Technicolor. A thunderstorm clashes over the always sunny city and George doesn't receive his dinner. One by one, people change.
The black-and-white traditionalists finally respond with violence and anger after soda jerk Bill Johnson (Jeff Daniels) paints a colorful nude portrait of Betty on his store window. A fuming riot erupts and the place is torn apart. Bud's girlfriend, Margaret, sprints from the chaos with a ripped shirt and frightened face. This undoubtedly symbolizes the race riots of the 1950s and 1960s. The movie, however, doesn't just allude to racial prejudice but to the repression seen in totalitarian societies, too. During the riot, the library is also vandalized and the conformist citizens start torching the books. This situation has a horrifying resemblance to the book burnings conducted by the Nazis throughout the 1930s and 1940s.
Afterwards, the town council passes the Pleasantville Code of Conduct to stop the violence. This law hints back to the Jim Crow Laws and the segregation of African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement. Similarly, Big Bob (J.T. Walsh) and the rest of his conformists want to separate the coloreds from the black-and-whites. This is clearly his motive when he states, "We have to separate out the things that are pleasant from the things that are unpleasant." This discrimination is made clear again by the familiar "No Coloreds" sign.
Bud and Bill revolt against the prejudice by painting a colorful mural on the side of city hall. They are arrested and placed on trial. At the trial, Bud confronts his father George, who is still holding onto his conformist way of life. Bud argues that Betty is still beautiful, even if she is in color. George, just like everyone else, soon accepts and embraces the change. By the end of the film, the entire town of Pleasantville explodes with color and emotion. The transformation is complete.
David started as "a detached, ironic contemporary youth who initially tries to preserve the integrity of Pleasantville, only to learn that nostalgia is not all it's cracked up to be." Meanwhile, Jennifer was a teenage girl who was trying to "build a life out of fashion, sexual encounters, and glib nihilism." This left her with a "yearning for self-esteem and genuine emotional contact" (Johnson-Ott).
George Parker and Big Bob are resilient men shocked by sudden changes, both in the household and in society. Soda jerk Bill Johnson "stands out as a gentle soul with the spirit of an artist buried beneath his passive demeanor." Betty Parker, however, is perhaps the most inspiring character, beginning as the lonely, repressed housewife "who blossoms into passionate individuality" (Johnson-Ott). Ultimately, the film can teach us about alteration, love, and forgiveness. It discusses the important issues of the 1950s while also drawing parallels to how we live in modern America. The common notion is that life was simple in the 1950s, but in reality it was only simple on television. That is the lesson that David carried back with him to 1998. Life is complicated, for better or for worse, so make it count.
The acclaimed movie critic, Robert Ebert, recognized the significance of this film: "Pleasantville, which is one of the year's best and most original films, sneaks up on us. It begins by kidding those old black-and-white sitcoms like Father Knows Best, it continues by pretending to be a sitcom itself, and it ends as a social commentary of surprising power." Elbert concluded, "Pleasantville is the kind of parable that encourages us to re-evaluate the good old days and take a fresh look at the new world we so easily dismiss as decadent. Yes, we have more problems. But also more solutions, more opportunities, and more freedom" (Ebert). As the film's tagline so eloquently notes, the movie proves that "nothing is as simple as black-and-white."
Ebert, R. (1998, October 1). Pleasantville. Retrieved from RogerEbert.com.
Johnson-Ott, E. (n.d.). Pleasantville (1998). Retrieved from Internet Movie Database.