This movie is one of those rare things: an entertaining, feel-good flick that is also smart and thought-provoking. I loved it!
I couldn’t help compare it (unfavorably) to The Help – another film set in the 1960s South about black women resisting institutionalized racism and oppression. The Help seemed specifically designed to relegate racism firmly to the past and make white people leave the theatre feeling good about themselves. Hidden Figures endeavors to present a nuanced and complex vision of life and racism in America.
One of the major strengths of Hidden Figures is the quiet way it portrays racism. Sure we’ve all seen the old pictures and videos of angry, vicious white people screaming at black protestors. It’s *easy* to be appalled by that and think smugly how nice that this is all FAR behind us. Similarly, The Help presents us with an over-the-top villain in Hilly Holbrook. She’s nasty and vicious and we hate her instantly. She contrasts sharply with the saintly ‘white savior’ Skeeter, thus creating a false dichotomy where white people are either wickedly racist or 100% not racist. This simplistic treatment allows white people to feel completely let off the hook. None of us are as bad as Hilly – never mind that we don’t acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of us aren’t Skeeter either.
But the sad fact is that racism isn’t always extreme and it isn’t always loud. In fact, more likely than not, it’s subtle and quiet as it is portrayed in Hidden Figures. It’s the indignity of having to run half a mile to use the one ‘colored restroom’ available. It’s having a coffee-pot labeled ‘colored’ put out anonymously your second day on the job. It’s allowing someone to do the same work as a white peer for less money and a less prestigious title. It’s being mistaken for janitorial staff.
One of the best moments in the film is when the white female supervisor Vivian (played by Kirstin Dunst) says to Dorothy (played by Octavia Butler) ,’Despite what you may think, I have nothing against y’all.’, and Dorothy replies coolly ‘I know you probably believe that.’ And therein lies the essential truth of American racism – 99% of racists don’t actually believe they are racist, and it’s awfully hard to combat something that you can’t even acknowledge.
Another strength of the movie is the perspective. The film is mostly told from the point of view of the three women. We get to see the large and small ways they advocate for themselves – boldly speaking up in a meeting, stealing a book from a ‘whites only’ library, jumping through bureaucratic hoops. We also see them as fully realized human beings above and beyond mythological symbols of the Civil Rights era. They are friends, daughters, wives and mothers. They drink, dance, flirt, and kvetch. They worry about the Soviets and the Cold War. They feel invested in, proud of and invigorated by their role in the Space Race.
But the really brilliant thing the film does is to shift the perspective ever so slightly from time to time. The white characters are also shown as humans with complicated motives governing their words and actions. Vivian, for example, is never overtly rude or cruel to Dorothy. Rather she is brusque and dismissive as people are to people they feel are beneath them. Dunst plays Vivian with a air of weary prickliness that makes me think she feels fairly exhausted fighting her own battles as a female supervisor at NASA, and the ‘colored computers’ are pretty low on her list of priorities. Realistically and thankfully, the film never has Vivian do a complete 180 in her behavior or attitudes. Vivian and Dorothy will *never* ride off into the sunset together, but Dorothy does get one tiny concession when Vivian shifts from calling her Dorothy to Mrs. Vaughn. It’s a small victory, but it’s a start.
Similarly, Kevin Costner plays Al, Katherine’s boss, with a great amount of finesse and subtlety. Al is so single-minded in his pursuit to help NASA win the Space Race that he fails to notice how the fairly obvious and persistent daily discrimination is making it impossible for Katherine to do her job to the best of her ability. Al has his hero moment when he dramatically tears down the ‘Colored Restroom’ sign, but we also know that it took his own goals being jeopardized for him to finally take action.
And this is where the film does its most powerful work. Vivian and Al aren’t evil and ignorant racist caricatures. They aren’t burning crosses or actively terrorizing protestors. They’re educated, intelligent people who also happen to be products of their time and environment. It suddenly becomes harder for us to be so self-congratulatory for our modern and enlightened attitudes. Sure, we feel shocked by the overt racism on display, but we’ve also been taught that it’s wrong.
The easy, casual racism is what really made me squirm. When Ruth, Al’s secretary, says to Katherine, “I don’t know where your restroom is”, she says it in such an off-handed way that we know she’s not being purposefully mean or obtuse. She’s just falling right in line with the status quo. Why would a white secretary in the 1960s know or care where the ‘colored restroom’ was?
I’m just an average person of average intelligence and lower than average courage. How would I have behaved in the same time and place?