Review: Historical Fiction

Movie Review: Hidden Figures and How It Evaded Hollywood Whitewashing and Opened a Whole Other Can of Worms

Hidden Figures received a lot of accolades this year, and with good reason. Unfortunately, I found myself personally underwhelmed and disappointed in the movie. Don’t get me wrong: I’m happy that the movie exists, and that it got a great deal of attention and praise. I recognize that it broke a lot of outdated Hollywood norms and delivered a decent, feel-good story that is satisfying to an audience.

 

Before I get to Hidden Figures, I want to point out the media climate into which this movie appeared. Our mainstream media in the US has the unfortunate tendency to be overwhelmingly white. Non-white characters are frequently relegated to token supporting cast, or even to the token non-white character defined almost entirely by their race; and even when a movie revolves around a mostly non-white cast, a white character often gets shoe-horned into the foreground in a way that feels uncomfortably unnatural the moment you look past the racial divide. (Just for the record, let me make it clear that I consider it just as bad when a principally black movie shoehorns in the token white character whose main character trait is their whiteness.) And none of this is to mention the times when movies such as Prince of Persia or Gods of Egypt go out of their way to cast white actors as patently non-white characters.

The above is known as Hollywood whitewashing, and is generally accepted to be a problem. There are far fewer non-white actors in Hollywood because there are far fewer non-white roles in Hollywood, and some of those non-white roles get filled by white actors anyway.

So it is certainly an accomplishment that Hidden Figures avoids all of these pitfalls. No character is defined solely by race in this movie. The focus remains fully on the three African American women who are supposed to be the center of the story. Ladies and gentlemen, a Hollywood movie about African Americans for a mainstream audience that isn’t whitewashed! Hallelujah!

It would appear that we cleared that first pitfall only to trip and fall face first into the next one. Here we have a different kind of whitewashing: one that isn’t about the casting or the focus of the story. It’s the kind where the movie is trying as hard as it can to make systemic racism palatable to a mainstream audience. It’s inescapable throughout the movie, from beginning to end, and entirely undermines the entire theme of the movie: the three protagonists’ struggle for recognition in a racist, sexist society. Allow me to highlight three of these instances.

Point one: Katherine Goble’s outburst and the dramatic payoff. This is the most obviously sensationalist part of the movie, and also the part where I realized that the movie was not trying to reflect reality so much as it was trying to make its audience feel good. Katherine is assigned to work for the Space Task Group, but the closest colored bathroom is in a building half a mile away. She is therefore away from her desk for 40 minutes at a time whenever she needs to go to the bathroom. When her boss confronts her about this, in front of the entire group, she rants at him about how she is expected to do the same amount of work as everyone else and drink out of a special coffee pot labeled “colored” and can’t afford the pearls she is allowed to wear with her uniform and has to walk half a mile to go to the bathroom. Her boss responds by taking a mallet to the “colored ladies bathroom” sign (because apparently there was only one such bathroom in all of NASA) and declaring that now there are no colored bathrooms, so she should go wherever she pleases, preferably closer to her desk.

Where to even begin unpacking this. First of all, let’s be clear that NASA’s attitude toward race was progressive for the time, if only because their goals superseded compliance with racist and sexist norms. However, “progressive for the time” is far from equality. We in fact see how even after everyone knows what these women can do, they still continue to only use them as last resorts. Does anyone honestly think that Katherine Goble would have gotten away with taking her boss to task that way in public, in front of everyone, in 1960s Virginia? Does anyone honestly think anyone in her position would have dared, after being repeatedly warned that being a mere computer, she was entirely replaceable? And while the boss dragging the entire Space Task Group to the West Computing building to watch him tear down the sign was satisfying to an audience, does anyone honestly think he would have cared enough to take that much time out of everyone’s day to make one person feel better? Yes, women needed to be assertive and aggressive to get anywhere at the time, as Katherine Goble herself has been quoted saying. However, there is a fine line between aggressive and loudly accusing your boss of ignorance in public, which is what happened in the movie.

Furthermore, Katherine would take all the documents with her that she has to review to the bathroom. This further sensationalizes her struggle at the expense of making sense. Any benefit she would get out of the time she has to review them while in the bathroom should be outweighed by her decreased speed as she is burdened by the load, unless she has serious constipation issues. But more importantly, surely those documents are top secret? Does no one have a problem with her carrying them all the way across the NASA campus? At one point, she makes this run in the rain, which is even more baffling. Why not just leave the documents behind, so you could run faster and don’t have to deal with soggy papers afterwards? The problem is not merely that this is unrealistic, though the distance from reality distracts from the very real parts of her struggle.

The bigger problem is that all of these sensationalist dramatics serve to entertain the audience by highlighting Katherine’s struggles and delivering a satisfying payoff when she yells at her boss. That satisfaction comes at the expense of allowing the audience to recognize the very real, very brutal truth of what this woman had to live through. Segregation didn’t end because Katherine’s boss told her that she could use any bathroom. But to the audience watching this movie, it did.

However, it is interesting to note that while segregation was an issue of society at the time, none of this was a problem in reality for Katherine Goble. She was quoted as saying that she never felt segregation at NASA. So this storyline was an entirely unnecessary, poorly executed, made-up conflict from start to finish.

Point two: Mary Jackson’s argument to the judge. Mary Jackson wants to apply to an engineering program in NASA, but for that she is required to take classes at a certain high school, which is an all-white school. She files an appeal with the court and has a session with the judge. She points out that the judge was many firsts in his family (first to go to college, etc.), and then asks him to let her be a first by letting her attend these classes. She concludes with the argument, “Which ruling do you think will matter a hundred years from now?”

Yes, this is a small offense compared with the last one. But I see this argument in historical fiction so often that it’s become tedious to me. That argument does not work unless the person was already on your side. If the judge believed that the way things were was right, why should he believe that things would be any different a hundred years in the future? It might work if he believed that the way things were was wrong, but wanted to rule against her to keep the peace. But if so, he probably had reason to fear the consequences of ruling against her, and in that case would it matter to him what people said a hundred years in the future? So he concedes (probably because he was going to rule in her favor anyway), with the “condition” that she is only allowed to attend night classes. But she had a full-time job, surely she was only asking for night classes in the first place?

To cap this off, when Mary Jackson attends the class, she gets odd looks, and a comment from the professor about how the curriculum isn’t tailored to women (which she quickly counters by telling him that it’s no different from teaching men) but encounters no further obstacles. From what we see in this film, the court ruling and her and her husband’s own mental blocks were her only obstacles.

Point three: the characters lack humanity. Here is this movie in a nutshell: there are three women who are good at math, engineering and computing. They work at NASA and each have families to look after. They all have happy home lives, darkened only by the racial strife of the times. At work, they are constantly underestimated and overlooked because of their race and gender. They prove that with hard work and perseverance, they can shine. The end.

Does that not sound problematic? Allow me to clarify.

Firstly, working a full-time job all around the clock as depicted is grueling enough without also having a family at home to look after. Doing both would be nigh impossible to juggle. Mary Jackson’s husband at one point tells her that NASA will never allow an African American woman to become an engineer; Jim Johnson, Katherine Goble’s future husband, tells her when they meet that he didn’t know that NASA trusted women with such important calculations. Both men later admit they were wrong and apologize, and that’s the end of that plot thread. As far as we can tell, Katherine’s children miss their mother, but her mother has no problem running the household for her; as for Mary and Dorothy, we never even get a glimpse of any discord in their home lives because of the hours they work, though presumably their husbands have full-time jobs as well. Two working parents in a home may be normal now, but this movie is set in the 1960s, when a woman was still expected to be a homemaker, even if she also had a job. You wouldn’t know that if all you’d seen was this movie. But who knows? Maybe these three women were incredibly fortunate and had very progressive, accepting husbands. There’s more to unpack.

Secondly, Katherine, Mary and Dorothy have no character flaws. They encounter no interpersonal problems that aren’t portrayed as being because of their gender or race. Sure, Mary tailgates a police officer in the opening while he escorts them to NASA, and Dorothy steals a book on programming from the white library, but only after it’s clear that she and her children will be kicked out for being black. Dorothy also sneaks into the room with the IBM to practice programming it, but she is ultimately rewarded for this when her competence as a programmer is acknowledged and she and the entire West Computing group move on to programming the IBM. In essence, the characters face obstacles and overcome them. No one develops. No one grows.

This extends into the problem with the characters portrayed by Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons, because we only see them as obstacles to our main characters. We see them succumbing to the accepted gender and racial norms of the time, and that’s all: thusly they are vilified. In the theater where I saw this film, the audience were booing Dunst and Parsons as much as they were applauding the protagonists’ successes, because that was all they were to them. We don’t see them in any other context except as people standing in the way of our protagonists’ goals.

I have to take a moment here to commend the actors’ portrayals, because if you care to look between the lines, you can see that there is more to the story than is on the surface. But this is entirely a credit to the actors and possibly the director, because the writing is hollow. It even gives way to a form of fairy-tale-like Good vs. Evil narrative, because each of these five characters is so entirely lacking in humanity that they become merely Protagonist or Antagonist.

And thirdly, within the context of this movie, it would seem that everyone lives happily ever after. Kirsten Dunst’s character realizes that she’s been wronging Dorothy, Jim Parsons’ character realizes that he’s been wronging Katherine, and Dorothy, Katherine and Mary all rise to prominence in NASA and racism was never a problem again. But of course, that’s not what happened. For instance, Dorothy continued to be passed over for promotion, because her obstacle wasn’t Dunst’s character: it was all of societal norms. In a fair world, all three of them would have risen far above and beyond the prominence that they did achieve. But it isn’t a fair world. In this movie, the characters, though they do express frustration, ultimately overcome every source of frustration portrayed in the film. There is no lingering sense of wrong at the end. No fury imparted to the viewer about the injustice of the society that these women lived through. No uncomfortable revelations about how even the most well-meaning of people are swayed by the inexorable forces of society.

I wish I could say that this doesn’t matter, because it’s just about how these women overcame some of the obstacles they encountered at NASA to contribute to the space program. But the fact is, the obstacles were, throughout the film, sexism and racism: even when that was not the case in real life. So what this movie has done is create a feel-good story entirely about an amped-up uncomfortable, distressing subject matter that has defined millions of lives over the decades, and watered it down to an obstacle that our protagonists just needed to try hard enough to overcome. That undercuts the entire theme of systemic conscious and subconscious bias.

I wouldn’t call this a bad movie. It’s a decent movie, and the acting, costumes and sets are exceptional. My problems are entirely with the writing, because it is a movie that dealt with a delicate, volatile subject through sensationalization and ultimately avoiding confronting that subject head-on. Which is a shame, because it didn’t have to be this way. The story could have been driven by personal problems in the women’s lives, and their attempts to balance work and family: the discrimination would have existed in the background, but not been a main focus of the plot. Alternatively, if the movie had only avoided the dramatic outburst and the satisfying destruction of the “colored ladies bathroom” sign, I would have been satisfied that the story wanted to hint at the racial issue without bringing it front and center. But it did bring it front and center, for the sake of a few scenes where the main characters tell off the people standing in their way in a way that satisfies the audience, but that did not happen in real life.

As a result, here we have a hollow, feel-good movie about sexism and racism. It grieves me to say that this was probably necessary if it wanted to be a mainstream hit, which it did. It also saddens me to note how much of an improvement this is, compared to typical fare featuring the Hollywood whitewashing I talked about at the beginning. We as a society can do better, should do better, and should demand more from the media that entertain and educate us.

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