White Fragility Hijacked Hidden Figures

*with mountains of thanks to Sharanya for talking through ideas & recommending reading, as always x

So I finally, finally saw Hidden Figures on a flight recently, and of course, I loved it. The film tells the story of three black women working at NASA during the “space race” in the 1950s and ’60s—in the words of the poster, it’s the story of “the women you don’t know behind the mission you do.” Although all three of these women started working at NASA much earlier (and some of the events portrayed also took place much earlier—more on that later!), the film focuses on the run up to John Glenn’s orbit of the earth in the Friendship 7 spacecraft in 1962. The women featured are Katherine Johnson (Goble), played by Taraji P. Henson; Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer; and Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monáe. Referred to as “computers,” these women were among the many—black and white—who did computational work for NASA before machines could. The movie is based on a book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly.

I started sobbing within the first five minutes, when little Katherine Goble stands in front of a blackboard and explains analytical geometry to a room full of students twice her age.

The women who anchor the film gave stunning, committed, nuanced performances, with cathartic moments of passionate, explosive resistance (Katherine shouting down her boss; Mary convincing a judge to let her attend night classes at a white high school) balanced by moments that showed the weariness of constant, quiet resistance (Katherine including her name on NASA reports despite her colleague’s insistence that “computers don’t write reports;” Dorothy being frog marched out of the public library with her young sons; Mary’s husband reminding her that NASA doesn’t hire any female engineers, let alone black female engineers).

The representations of black womanhood in the film are spectacularly complex, giving us rare examples of women—and especially women of color—allowed to be both good at their jobs and wholly, emotionally human on screen. Our first encounter with Spencer’s Dorothy shows her fixing a broken-down car, lying on her back under the front bumper and diagnosing the problem as a police car zooms down the road toward her. She bypasses the starter to get the car going, and we next see her passing out assignments and chastising late arrivals at NASA. She holds her composure in the face of blatant discrimination from Kirsten Dunst’s Vivian Mitchell, who heads the division of white “computers” but, finally, vents to her friends on the drive home about the unfairness of doing the work of a supervisor without the pay or the title. Katherine and Mary back her up, verbalizing their support for their friend alongside their frustration with the systems that keep them from moving up. Dorothy, for her part, manages to bemoan her own situation while lifting up her friends, who have that day moved into more prestigious assignments: “Progress for any of us is progress for us all,” she says. It’s a stunning, nuanced portrayal of selfless solidarity mixed with personal rage against a rigged system.

Obviously, there’s a lot to love in the film. For one thing, its representation of intelligent, driven women of color gives the lie to the age-old stereotype of African-Americans specifically as lazy and/or stupid, especially in light of the historical context. These were real women who really made enormous contributions to NASA and the space race—there’s no spinning that as “political correctness.” This is important, necessary, and timely work: we need more representations of diverse bodies doing highly skilled jobs. We need more intersectional representation in leading roles in general, and we need it now. Hidden Figures is a great step forward in this respect.

But.

To put it bluntly: white fragility hijacked Hidden Figures.

I’m borrowing here from Robin DiAngelo, a scholar of whiteness studies, who first theorized the term in a 2011 article for the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy. DiAngelo argues that “White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress,” and that “[t]his insulated environment of racial privilege builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress” (55). Because we so rarely have to confront our own race/race-based privilege, white and white-presenting North Americans can be extremely uncomfortable with the suggestion that they ascribe to racist beliefs or that they might be complicit in systems of race-based oppression—or even the idea that racism still exists at all. As Sara Ahmed puts it, privilege lies in the ability to not notice: “when you speak about racism, you become the one who [is perceived to] cause damage” by bringing up something that white and white-presenting people can usually forget, or fail to notice, or even become “invested in not noticing.”

This bring us back to Hidden Figures, which was directed by a white man, and which seems to go out of its way to soften or cushion its portrayal of 1960s racism in America for its white audiences. While there are gestures towards the ongoing fight for civil rights, references to Dr. King, and spectres of police brutality peppered throughout the film, segregation and racial discrimination are, overall, represented as inconvenient and unfair but not life-threatening. Katherine treks half a mile across NASA’s campus to use a “colored” restroom several times a day; Dorothy and her sons sit at the back of a bus after they’re escorted out of the library. Not-so-subtle differences in quality between the facilities provided for the “West Computing Group,” which is all black, and the “East Computing Group,” which is all white, are evident. There are one or two mentions of Brown v. Board of Education, but no one prevents Mary from entering or attending class in an all-white school once she gets her court order. We don’t see the really, really dark side of segregation in the early ’60s.

I say this not to diminish or underplay the cumulative weight of microaggressions, nor to suggest that these things—available bathrooms; freedom to choose a seat or use a library; updated, clean, well-lit work environments—are unimportant. Rather, my impression was that the film used these examples of segregation and discrimination rather than others in order to make its message more palatable to the white audiences who, among other things, make up ninety-some per cent of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the body that awards Oscars).

There is certainly a counter-argument to be made: that depicting the subtler, systemic, unspectacular side of day-to-day existence under an oppressive regime (not too strong a description of segregation in America) is a powerful and potentially more transformative approach to changing hearts and minds; that racism is insidious and not always overt, and that films too often skew towards sensationalizing violence against black, brown, and female bodies (cf. Twelve Years a Slave). I am sympathetic to the argument that films could and should do a better job of showing us the exhausting challenge of just existing as a woman of color in America.

I don’t think that’s what Hidden Figures was doing, at least not intentionally. Comments from Theodore Melfi, the film’s director, suggest that such a portrayal wasn’t foremost in his mind when he created fictional white savior moments to punctuate Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary’s stories: “There needs to be white people who do the right thing,” he said, when asked.

There certainly are a lot of them. In the broken-down car scene that I mention above, the police officer initially behaves brusquely, but eventually acquiesces and even offers the women a police escort to Langley so they won’t be late for work. Beyond Katherine’s admonition to Mary—“No one wants to go to jail because of your mouth!”—as the cruiser approaches, there is very little suggestion that a white police officer might behave in anything other than a civil and professional manner towards women of color. This, we know, is untrue.

It’s not that white people don’t or never did “do the right thing”—it’s that there’s a conspicuous lack of white people who don’t “do the right thing,” either immediately or ultimately, in Hidden Figures. This is nothing less than an erasure of African-American history.

A key scene in commentary on the film’s white savior problem is the now-infamous “bathroom speech,” where Katherine explains to Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) that she has to trek half a mile across Langley’s research campus to get to a “Colored” bathroom, so it takes her upwards of forty minutes just to relieve herself.

Although Harrison, Katherine’s boss, rages at her for always being absent when he needs her, he takes immediate action to desegregate NASA’s bathrooms as soon as he learns of the problem. He bashes down the “Colored” sign looming over the women’s restroom with sheer brute force. “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color,” he announces, triumphantly, as he flings his crowbar to the ground and hulks off screen. A crowd of nameless black women look on, stunned.

As a number of critics (and Katherine Johnson herself) have pointed out, that’s not quite how it happened. In fact, NASA (then NACA) was desegregated by an untheatrical memo from associate director Floyd Thompson in 1958, three years before the film is set.

Aside from the historical inaccuracy (after all, it’s a movie, right?), the scenes of Katherine sprinting across campus, binders clutched to chest, or correcting calculations on the bathroom floor, are presented with a light touch. Pharrell Williams’ catchy, ’60s-inspired score bounces along as Katherine runs in her high heels, pushes her glasses off her nose, and drops paperwork en route to and from the bathroom. It’s almost comic: Katherine is inconvenienced, and we can see that it annoys her, but ultimately, it’s portrayed as no big deal until Harrison gets involved.

As Zeba Blay points out for The Huffington Post:

“the inclusion of the bathroom scene doesn’t make Melfi a bad filmmaker, or a bad person, or a racist. But his suggestion that a feel-good scene like that was needed for the marketability and overall appeal of the film speaks to the fact that Hollywood at large still has a long way to go in telling black stories, no matter how many strides have been made.”

I’ve talked about just two examples of scenes in which a white character behaved, well, better than many white people were behaving in 1961. There were many other scenes I could’ve picked. Don’t get me started on the contrived moment when Paul Stafford, one of Katherine Johnson’s fiercest antagonists in the film, lovingly delivers her a cup of coffee—a gesture intended, presumably, to smooth over the segregation of the coffee pots that occurs when Katherine begins working in the all-white division where she spends most of her time. As Ahmed says, “[s]moothing over often means: eliminating the signs of injury to create a fantasy of a whole.” It’s a sickly sweet moment, and it’s obviously designed to show us that Paul is actually a pretty good guy. He just had a little wobble there where he thought that black women weren’t really people, that’s all! Look at how Katherine’s hard work proved him wrong and won him over!

I could also talk about the pearls that Katherine’s co-workers pitch in to buy her when she gets demoted because they bought an IBM. This is the gift they choose because Katherine throws in an aside about not being able to afford the string of pearls that is supposed to be part of her dress code: “God knows you don’t pay negroes enough to afford pearls.” I would wish to point out to the filmmakers that she wasn’t complaining about not having a necklace; she was saying she wanted fair pay for her highly skilled work. But I guess jewellery softens the blow of being fired, anyway.

Enough. I don’t want to knock the movie. Like I say above, there’s a lot that’s great about it, and there’s a lot of good that’s come from its success. I’m glad it was made. I hope it inspires more mainstream cultural production that centers stories like Johnson’s, Vaughan’s, and Jackson’s.

But I also hope that the films already in progress, and those to come in the future, will think more critically and carefully about how they represent whiteness in stories about people of color. I hope that the next movie about women of color in STEM fields is brave enough to tackle their experiences from their perspectives unflinchingly. After all, their stories are compelling enough on their own.