Tonight my wife and I went to see the film, Hidden Figures, the true story of three brilliant African American women and how they overcame the institutionalized racism and sexism in their workplace, which happened to be NASA in the days of the pivotal launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit. It’s a wonderful and inspiring film, straight forwardly and honestly told. And while it celebrates the triumph of the women over the intolerance of the time, there is one major problem – not with the movie, but with how white audiences will react to it.
That problem is that it is the type of story that a white man like myself can too easily feel comfortable watching. It pushes the right buttons, the “boy, it had to be rough to be a black woman in the south in the sixties,” which, to borrow from the mathematics that is at the heart of the film, can lead us to the incorrect conclusion of “we sure have come a long ways since then.” This isn‘t the fault of the film – it tells a story that needs to be told in a way that will reach the most people – rather it’s the fault of the audience and the nature of institutionalized racism, that it’s too easy for those of us in the majority to assume we have any idea what racism is, what it must feel like, and oversimplify the incredible complexity that makes racism the tangled web that it is. Ultimately, Hiddem Figures has the unintended effect of making us more comfortable with the deeper prejudices that remain undisturbed and unchallenged deep inside.
Again, this isn’t any fault of the film – to shine a light on these brilliant and hitherto unknown women is inarguably important. The film does have a couple of incredibly powerful moments which I won’t divulge any details about so as not to spoil anything for those yet to see it. It is a very moving and thought provoking film.
Yet something still gnaws at me. It occurs to me that though I walked out of the theatre moved and touched by the story of the women, I really didn’t learn anything new about myself in the process. This is what great art and great films do to me. For example, after watching No Country for Old Men or There Will be Blood, I felt drained and in some unidentified way, changed. Those and other films I’ve seen burned themselves into my psyche, became a part of my subconscious, and a part of the internal vocabulary that I’ll use to describe the world from that point on. That Hidden Figures doesn’t do that isn’t meant as a criticism; few films have that effect on me. It’s an inspiring and well-made film, but don’t count on it to blaze any new ground or illuminate any new truths about racism.
I guess what it comes down to is that Hidden Figures shows us three exceptional African Americans trying to overcome obstacles and succeed in the white workplace. And while I don’t for a moment doubt the veracity or accuracy of the film, I can’t help think that too many people who look like me will walk out of the theatre with the wrong reactions: one, that if these women can overcome such obstacles, there’s no reason others can’t roll up their sleeves and make it, too, and two, that white culture is superior to black culture and is a goal that all African Americans should aspire to, should assimilate themselves within, and be measured against.
These are both widely held tenants that are at the heart of our institutionalized racism. For example, I live in Wisconsin, and I am a Green Bay Packers fan. About thirty five years ago, I found myself watching a packer game on television with a bunch of blue collar white guys. The packers weren’t very good at the time, and their star player was a Stanford educated African American named James Lofton. One of the guys watching had a second home in the Green Bay area, and knew a lot of residents of the small town and how they frequently interacted with the players. “They all say what a great guy Lofton is,” he said, “and how well spoken and articulate he is.” It was funny to hear, because I’d known this guy for some time, and never once heard him use terms like “well-spoken and articulate” to describe a white man. But here he was, trying to show off how open minded he was by paying what he thought was a compliment to a black man, while instead revealing the depths of his ignorance and intolerance in intimating that most black men didn’t speak well and were inarticulate. You hear the same logic in the stories of other African-American sports stars who overcame incredible adversity growing up in the inner city to make it big in the NFL or NBA, leading to the next logical statement, “if they can overcome that, why can’t the rest of them?” forgetting what rare and exceptional physical talents anyone has to possess to make it to the level of professional sports. It’s the old, “why can’t they pull themselves up by the bootstraps and make something productive of themselves?” (By the way – a major clue in identifying whether language is racist or not is the frequency of the words “they” and “them.”)
The second tenant, that white culture is superior to black culture, that the suburbs are superior to the inner city, is a tougher egg to crack. As one who’s lived most of his life in the quiet comfort of suburbia, I recognize that I probably believe this. But I also recognize that I have no proof to base this belief on, because I simply don’t understand African American culture. What I have to work on is resisting the urge to assume because I understand white culture and don’t understand black culture that white culture is inherently superior.
I am a fifty eight year old white male who’s lived his entire life in the small towns and suburbs of Wisconsin. Growing up, all I knew about black culture was music, Motown and blues, and sports stars. The first books I read were about Willie Mays and Bob Gibson, both favorite baseball players of mine, and both men who’d grown up in low income, inner city neighborhoods. Reading their biographies made me sensitive to their backgrounds, but it didn’t really give me much more than a snapshot into what African American life was really like. And to this day, I still don’t know. I don’t understand hip-hop or rap – I’ve tried, I know it is a legitimate art form, but I just don’t get it. It just doesn’t sound like music to the cranky old white man I’ve become. I don’t understand the clothing or the jewelry or the language. But then I realize, how could I understand these things? I’ve never spent a minute in anything except for white skin – and even if I could, that minute spent in black skin would mean nothing without possessing an ancestry of hundreds of years of being black.
When I wonder what it must be like to be black, my best-intended liberal fantasies take hold, and I try to imagine being stopped by police for no reason, or white people reacting with fear upon the site of me, or being discriminated against looking for employment or advancement or whatever. Of course, there is no way I can know what these things feel like, but when I really think about it, I realize these are the wrong things to try to imagine, that they are clichés and stereotypes that are just as broad and racist as the myths perpetuated by white supremacists. We need to understand that the heavy baggage of racism is buried deep within each of us, and we have to learn how to best react when this baggage surfaces, when it is exposed. I know, for example, that the term “inner-city” immediately conjures up images of drug deals and gang shootings in my head, because that is about 90% of what I hear and read about it entails. The truth is that families and hard work are probably just as much a part of the fabric of life in the city as it is in the burbs. In fact, statistics tell me drug use is more prevalent in the burbs – yet still the images of needles in the gutters fill my imagination of inner city life.
This is where art can come in – it can shine a light on unpleasant and unexpected truths and make us react and maybe even change us. There are two examples I can quickly think of that exposed some small but elemental truths to me – one was the Spike Lee film, Do the Right Thing, particularly the moment when Lee throws that garbage can through the plate glass window, and the second is in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when Huck decides that he will accept going to Hell rather than turning his friend Jim in.
While Hidden Figures doesn’t fundamentally change my perception of things the way those two moments did, it’s still an excellent film that I’d strongly recommend everybody see.