On The Problematic And Unnecessary White Saviors In Hidden Figures

January 31, 2017  |  

My parents saw the movie Hidden Figures before I had a chance to. I knew it was going to be good because they both gave it a glowing review. Seeing as how my parents fancy themselves as unofficial movie critics, glowing reviews are few and far between. Still, as much as they enjoyed it, my father felt that something about it was a bit too soft.

After seeing the movie, I didn’t necessarily share the sentiment, but I could see how he would come to that conclusion. But a recent article in Vice News has caused me to reconsider my father’s analysis.

If you have yet to see the movie, now is the time to click out. I’ll see you on another article.

For those who have seen the movie, you’ll remember that the fact Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, had to run half an hour just to use the Colored Ladies restroom was a huge part of the storyline. It affected her work, having to take hour long breaks just to walk back and forth from the restroom. And one day her boss, played by Kevin Costner, asked why she was often missing from her desk. After running an hour in the rain, Katherine, soaking wet, starts yelling as she explains that racism and segregation is the reason she’s missing in action so often.

In a grand and dramatic gesture, Kevin Costner, followed by a throng of people, takes a crowbar, treks the 30 minutes to the Colored restroom and bashes the sign until it falls to the ground. Once the sign has been forcibly removed, Costner looks at the crowd, which has increased since he first began, and says, “No more Colored restrooms. No more White restrooms…Here at NASA, we all pee the same color.”

It was over the top and powerful. It made a statement. And it was entirely false.

This wouldn’t have been an issue if the movie didn’t seek to tell the mostly true story of these Black women who helped shape history. And perhaps it wouldn’t have been such an issue if the book Hidden Figures, written by Margot Lee Shetterly, didn’t explicitly explain how Katherine Johnson herself took a stand against segregation, without the help of a White man.

According to Vice, the book, which I have yet to read, clearly states that Johnson “refused to so much as enter the Colored bathrooms” and nobody ever tried to make her do so. Later the Vice writer asked Johnson herself what she did and she explained, “I just went on in the White one.”

So when the author asked the film’s director, Theodore Melfi, why he felt the White savior scene was necessary he said he didn’t see a problem with adding a White hero into the story.

“There needs to be White people who do the right thing, there needs to be Black people who do the right thing. And someone does the right thing. And so who cares who does the right thing, as long as the right thing is achieved?”

Actually, yes it does matter. While no one was expecting the film to be a documentary, this inclusion of the scene goes against the purpose and premise of the film. The entire movie is about how society had marginalized these women and their trials, triumphs and accomplishments. And this story was meant to right those wrongs. So pushing these central characters, Black women, to the side in order to make space for White men is not only cliche and problematic it was completely unnecessary. Katherine Johnson stood up to segregation on her own. And watching her walk into the White’s only restroom would have been less theatrical but perhaps more powerful in its righteous defiance, display of courage and demonstration of character. Personally, I loved the scene where Octavia Spencer’s character stole the book from the all-White library because they wouldn’t let her check it out. Stupid rules like that are meant to be broken and if she hadn’t done it, she would have never learned how to operate the new computer at work and her job as well as all the other Black women at NASA would have been fired. The story is about Black women so show the Black women especially when they use their agency to stand up to injustice.

I can understand Melfi’s thought process though. Perhaps White people do need to see themselves doing the right thing on screen. But when you’re telling a true story, tell the truth, especially when the reality is better than fiction. As my friend/coworker Victoria mentioned, Melfi’s argument is a cop out for White people needing to see themselves as good and just in some of the darkest and most unjust times in our country. And the reality is, that just wasn’t the case. Benevolent White folk, even at a prestigious institution like NASA, were hard to come by. It’s the reason this story has remained untold for so long.

Furthermore, there were good and factual moments for White folks without this extra-ass scene. There was the moment John Glen called to have Katherine Johnson check his math and there was the judge who let Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monae, take classes at the all-White school. Then there was another fictionalized moment when Katherine’s boss allows her into the control room to watch John Glen’s launch and landing. (In reality, Johnson watched it all from her desk.) That’s enough. If you want to paint a picture of what the climate was like back in those days, paint it clearly.

One of the biggest problems with White supremacy is its inability to recognize the depth and darkness of the evil it has perpetuated across the world. And instead of acknowledging that, it’s become much easier to tell a version of the truth, a version that makes them feel more comfortable. But the fact of the matter is, it’s a version that doesn’t do a damn thing to help racism. Racist ideas and attitudes linger in this country because we haven’t, as a nation, even attempted to understand its affects. White people don’t want to acknowledge the psychological remnants of their actions in their minds and in the minds of the people they have and continue to oppress. They cringe at being called racist but refuse to recognize the racist-leaning attitudes that have prevented the country from progressing as it should.

And despite what Melfi thinks, that is something to care about.

If anything, I am thankful to Melfi for forcing me to buy Margot Lee Shetterly’s book.

Veronica Wells is the culture editor at MadameNoire.com. She is also the author of “Bettah Days.” You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter @VDubShrug.

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