renay: artist rendition of the center of a nebula (Default)
[personal profile] renay posting in [community profile] ladybusiness
The history of math and science, from an outsiders perspective, is dominated by a white male narrative which places men at the forefront of all the knowledge gleaned from the universe. If you delve deeper, though, that reality is revealed as the ongoing lie that white culture would love to continue propagating. The release of Hidden Figures, adapted from a 2016 nonfiction book by Margo Lee Shetterly, is a long overdue correction to the wider historical and artistic record that systematically erases black women from their place in history. We all know that we put rockets and men into space, but the public faces on those accomplishments are too often white. Hidden Figures is the rare Hollywood film that centers the historical experience of black women struggling to make their way in fields dominated by racist and sexist white people to put their mark on history.

Story-wise, I could have watched another two hours of these women being amazing at their jobs. Tonally it was a wonderful film with great performances by everyone, especially my favorite, Octavia Spencer. And Janelle Monáe and Taraji P. Henson were charming and emotionally engaging; I'm only familiar with Monáe's music, but she falls into her role as the group's most outspoken member in contrast to Henson's thoughtful and shy Katherine really well. If you're familiar with Henson from Empire, be prepared to switch gears, because she folds herself into this drastically different role perfectly. Katherine is the emotional core of the film, and Henson plays her as complicated woman with multiple layers and disappears into this determined, intelligent mathematician with ease.

Katherine looking up toward the viewer as she stares at a chalkboard offscreen

As a white woman you can watch the film and recognize one intersection of the struggle these women deal with on a day to day basis that's painfully familiar. There's the constant, grating microaggressions of working in male dominated spaces, having to work harder and longer than your male peers for a quarter of the recognition, and being passed over again and again because you don't fit the mold that supervisors trust as a known entity. Add those things to working longer for no overtime, not getting to see your family, and living with the constant threat of losing your job, and it's a recipe for massive amounts of stress.

Then there's the racism which permeates every aspect of the lives of these women. The film, perhaps, take a heavy hand with it in some places, but this is likely a side-effect of my own experiences growing up in rural Arkansas and seeing so many insidious types of racism firsthand. The film uses historical events to anchor the film in its time while pairing it with the quiet racism of the system at Langley, which strained under arbitrary rules about racial mingling. White people struggle to recognize any racism that doesn't portray itself as the gratuitously dehumanizing racism of the 19th and 20th centuries. There are so many painfully true aspects of racism represented in Hidden Figures, but the more insidious parts get brushed over. The only thing that allows them to be present in the film is the work the actors do to bring moments of frustration, marginalization, fear, and anger to light, and I'm not quite sure the smaller moments, unspoken, communicated in the silent spaces, will come across to some viewers.

Mary Jackson carrying a stack of books and paper binders

An example of creating a moment of racism that white people will easily recognize is via Katherine's plot thread when she gets transferred to a new position and her new building doesn't have a colored bathroom. The situation forces her to venture across the campus back to her old building. The music choice in this part of the film was interesting; it was time and again given upbeat and almost comedic music as Katherine ran in heels to the bathroom, often with work in hand, and back again. In my theater, people laughed during these scenes, intentionally played for comedy, but I was left uncomfortable and horrified. It culminates when Katherine explodes at her boss and white male colleagues. And it's hard to talk about this without unpacking the narrative presented in the book versus how the film dramatized the whole event. In the account by Margo Lee Shetterly, as far as I can recall, Katherine simply starts using the bathroom with white women in her building. There's no white man to be a heroic figure by destroying the sign for the colored bathroom while Katherine watches. The film gives the power of change and dismantling the segregationist attitudes to the white man, and I'm not quite sure how to feel about it when it's portrayed in a way to uplift him while Katherine passively watches. And my discomfort only grew when the majority white people around me clapped and cheered as the white man carried the sign off after an impassioned speech about only succeeding together, while they were completely silent after Katherine's brave and terrifying defense of herself to a room full of white men.

Dorothy Vaughan standing in front of a freestanding chalkboard

I spend a lot of time uncomfortable about race and unsure how to talk about it. I'm okay with that, because it keeps me aware of my own internalized racism. But I'm less comfortable with the fact that the movie often portrays the wins of these black women, whether it was gaining access to additional, white-only courses, getting a supervisor position, or developing complicated equations that launch a man into space and bring him home, in terms of their white colleagues and white people in power being celebrated for basic courtesy and humanity. It felt, over and over in the theater as white people cheered around me, that they weren't celebrating the constant, exhausting, never-ending struggle these women faced, but instead the white people becoming "enlightened." The only apology given to any of the black women who excel despite the oppressive attempts to silence them and erase them from their work is from Katherine's partner, another black man, who apologizes for underestimating her. The white men and women around them never apologize or take full responsibility for their role in actively preventing these women from reaching their full potential. Their enlightenment is passive at best.

I wonder what kind of film we would have gotten if it had been helmed by a black director and a black writer to adapt the book into a screenplay. I suspect it would have been a little more stark, more darkly funny than outright comedic, and a little more realistic about the toll this life might have taken on these women. At the very least there might have been less focus on the very minor steps taken toward basic humanity of the white people.

Mary, Katherine, and Dorothy looking toward the viewer offscreen

Even though I loved so many parts of this film, I'm concerned that a bunch of white people are going to walk out of Hidden Figures after clapping at all of the wrong moments. They'll miss the nuanced, unspoken parts of the racism these actors manage to highlight that happen still to this day, like Dorothy telling a white woman she's not as enlightened as she might think, or Mary being frank about why she's not an engineer, or Katherine speaking up to claim her work after a white man refuses to let her own it knowing what the cost might be. They'll go home with the idea that we've left these times behind, as they drive back to the white neighborhoods in their conservative counties, patting themselves on the back because they're not like "those whites." It's a common position and I heard it often last year: "I'm not one of those whites."

Dorothy, Katherine, and Mary at a church picnic buffet in nice dresses looking offscreen

The echoes between the racism is Hidden Figures and our own culture now suggests that if you're white in the U.S., you're one of "those whites". That's the part we struggle with now: this type of racism that sidelines black people isn't gone, it's just disguised and looks a bit different. But it's all part of a system intended to grind black talent out of every forward-looking field exists. Hidden Figures, the book and the film, is another step in looking back to our past to find the other black thinkers who have been erased from the wider historical record. I want more of them, and if folks in Hollywood pay attention to box office numbers, they'll start greenlighting, as Hidden Figures continues to gather critical steam and quite a few dollars.

Truly, I'm so glad for this film, because Henson, Spencer, and Monáe were all amazing. I'm so excited that so many people will get to see how awesome they are and that the women who did this work have been given the spotlight, however overdue it is. The best scenes in this film absolutely center these women and their accomplishments and knowledge. It's a tremendous film led by three tremendous actors, and I highly recommend it.

Date: 2017-01-09 09:01 pm (UTC)
spindizzy: Cougar from The Losers smiling and holding a gun. (Heh)
From: [personal profile] spindizzy
I can't see this film until February (uuuuuugh, but I wanna see it nooooooooow), but thank you for this commentary Nay! I feel like my expectations are being set to the correct degree now, especially re: my expectations for the black ladies (Awesome) and the white characters (ugh). It sounds really good!

Date: 2017-01-10 10:58 pm (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
February seems SO FAR.

Date: 2017-01-10 01:35 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
STOP MAKING ME WANT TO SEE MOVIES RENAY. How am I supposed to get anything accomplished if you are all the time making me want to see movies! I have books to read! Star Treks to watch! More books to read!


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