Though mixed among audiences, overall critical response to Hector and the Search for Happiness (2014) is not overwhelmingly positive. One of the largest negative criticisms leveled at the film is its tendency to generalize cultures, inspiring headlines like this one from the Washington Post: “Hector and the Search for Happiness belittles the entire African continent.”
The review continues, “In “Hector,” Africa functions solely as a stand-in for a specific kind of exoticism. In this Africa, there are lions, violent warlords, friendly natives that impart folksy wisdom and, of course, kindly, self-sacrificing white doctors. Is it racism? It’s certainly reductive, as well as staggeringly lazy. Why research the differences between Ghana and South Africa and Liberia and Rwanda when you can simply place your protagonist in “Africa” and use that as shorthand for “land where he feels out of place” — and get some really neat shots of elephants.”
The filmmakers, actors, and writers insist these generalizations are not to imply entire continents can be summed up using one word, but that they represent the child-like perception of the world present within Hector (Simon Pegg), the film’s protagonist.
From his obsession with Tintin to hallucinations of traveling around the world with a little dog, Hector and the Search for Happiness is a coming-of-age story about an extremely late bloomer. Hector has never had to culture himself, develop his own worldview, or figure himself out. Everything has somewhat easily worked in his favor, and as such, he lives a life of ennui and possesses a very limited worldview - one that would describe an incredibly diverse and complex landscape like Africa as something so saccharine and simply-stated.
To this end, Pegg has said “It’s told from the point of view of Hector’s childhood self, who he’s kind of lost touch with. The film is kind of like a fable … there’s a reason why it’s told in archetypes. It’s not just being socially irresponsible and saying: ‘Yeah, China’s like that and Africa’s all elephants.’ It’s like, this is how a kid would tell you the story. I was a little disappointed at some of the first-year film-student takes, like: Oh yeah, it’s just called ‘Africa.’ That’s the point. He goes on this mythic journey like a seven-year-old would. And children aren’t ironic. They have pure, raw, real emotion and that’s kind of the point of the film.”
Throughout the picture, Hector repeatedly talks to his nonexistent childhood dog. On occasion, we see Hector and the dog together in moments that contrast his eventual maturity. He speaks to those he encounters throughout the film with a jovial, whimsical receptiveness that comes from not harboring any preconceptions about the environments he’s within.
Though for some, that perspective doesn’t justify the stereotypical, perceptually-racist things that happen to Hector when he’s in various cultural environments. (In Africa, he’s kidnapped by drug lords, and a huge black family throws a party for their new white friend. In China, he falls for a girl only to find out she’s a hooker.) Even accidental or unintended racism is still racism - or at least culturally reductive. Even though the character is a man-child of sorts, he’s still a man, and a successful one with a high-profile job and a respected status. His ignorance is not necessarily excusable.
Perhaps for certain viewers, the attempted perspective of the film gets lots in the picture’s undeniably heavy schmaltz factor, and the result appears superficial and intolerant. Others will identify with the film's approach and appreciate the ultimately positive nature of the tale. Whatever the situation, the racist takeaway is more a matter of individual taste and perception than a definitive consideration.