Sunday, February 5, 2017

ARE WHITE FLAWS IN THE HIDDEN FIGURES MOVIE BAD FOR CHILDREN?

I wasn't going to say anything until after the Oscars. But the white director Ted Melfi is flapping his gums in interviews now, making clear what I observed when I was watching the movie last month.

Melfi went above and beyond making this movie white palatable. I figured he exaggerated the white savior moment described below. But it seems he admitted in an interview that he invented it completely.



"One of the storylines in “Hidden Figures” centers around a bathroom. Math genius Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, is transferred to a new building, where there are no bathrooms for black women. So every time she needs to relieve herself, she has to run across the campus to a building with a “Colored” bathroom.


Her white boss, played by Kevin Costner, discovers this only when Johnson returns to her desk from a bathroom break, drenched after running for half an hour in the rain. He is aghast, apparently having been unaware racism was taking place under his nose. So he picks up a crowbar, heads to the bathroom, and smashes the Colored Ladies Room sign. Then, as a crowd of black women look on, he delivers a powerful, funny rejection of Jim Crow segregation: “No more colored restrooms. No more white restrooms…. Here at NASA, we all pee the same color.” 
It’s a brilliant, dramatic scene. It also never happened"
https://news.vice.com/story/oscar-nominated-hidden-figures-was-whitewashed-but-it-didnt-have-to-be



This admission didn't surprise me the tiniest bit. But I saw a lot more wrong than this one fake white savior moment. I saw things that were worse.

I saw him re-teaching white people that their white supremacy is all about misunderstanding instead of white supremacy being about...

1) the enjoyment of feeling superior and
2) feelings of hate


....neither of which can be entirely erased by decreasing segregation or communication.  


White supremacy is not and never has been entirely about white ignorance. White people's dedication to believing this is why Mean Tangerine is president right now. 


This is also why Melfi has all of the white characters in the film be redeemed by the end of the movie. As I recall there isn't a single white character with obvious lingering white anger, white resentments, or white hostility by the time the credits roll. 

I liked the movie. But the white film director didn't even do SIMPLE THINGS like have the white characters make those dirty faces -that we're all so familiar to this day much less back then --when something like the white boss making sure everybody can use the same coffee pot.

Every single instance of white racism / white superiority in the movie is changed into a misunderstanding moment  
(--which is why Taraji P Henson's SAG Award acceptance speech burned me a little bit. Her defiant partial nod to the **We're All One Race The Human Race** concept bugged me.)

There's one scene in the movie where you THINK the white director Melfi will not redeem a white character. 

In one scene the white woman supervisor says something like "I don't have anything against you people." Octavia Spencer's says something like "I know you believe that." But by the end of the movie EVEN that condescending white woman is redeemed as "misunderstanding" when the white woman finally gives the black woman (Spencer) a promotion to supervisor.  

You could decide to understand that moment as the white woman deciding to give the black woman a promotion because she needs the black woman to help the white women's section. But it's JUST AS EASY to understand that scene as the white woman having a change of heart because Octavia confronted her and told her she's a racist whether she believe it or not. And I'm sure, the latter interpretation is what white Ted Melfi was going for.

It REALLY would not have taken THAT MUCH to keep white resentment and hostility at honest levels in the movie and STILL keep the movie itself an upbeat movie suitable for children. 

All it would have taken was showing the resistance and resentment in the facial expressions of white workers whenever a "colored only" sign was removed. He could have left one white character still snarling about having to share X with black people at the end of the movie -- JUST ONE. 

I do not like it when white people have much say at all when telling black stories. Now that I've been treated to the works of Shonda Rhimes, Ava DuVernay, and Mara Brock Akil my tolerance of the white telling of black stories has gone down.  

Of course, you can have Lee Uncle Ruckus Daniels making black movies and televisions series that are white palatable too. But having black people in charge of telling their own stories decreases the chances of a story with a lot of black faces in it serving to reinforce for whites the idea that white racism is just fundamentally about misunderstanding and being misunderstood. 


The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are important. It's easy to see this when the story repetitively being told is  a lie.

If white racism was about misunderstanding The Civil Rights Movement would have cured white racism instead of 57% of white voters (and likely 57% of the white population) raising a KKK endorsed candidate to the highest office in the land.


Ted Melfi's interpretation of White America in this film is false. The false message underlying HIDDEN FIGURES is bad for White Americans. We cannot afford to let white directors blow the same ole white bullsh** up White America's skirt. 

White supremacy is not primarily a knowledge problem; it's primarily a heart and/or empathy problem. This is the story white people need to tell themselves instead.

So, I think this film is good for black and brown children who already have some light awareness of what white supremacy because what's missing can be discussed.

I just can't imagine black and brown children without some personal experience that would make a good base for discussion after the movie is over. Even the smallest black or brown child knows about how evil slavery was and how evil the killing of indigenous people for their land was.  

That is, I'm guessing that in black and brown homes the black and brown parents do not explain the white people who officially founded this country in the context of "That's just the way it was back then. People didn't understand it was bad to murder and enslave other human beings"  the way white people clearly teach their children about the founding of this country. I've heard variations of this out of white adults mouths too often to be coming anywhere else except their parents.  
So I don't think I can say the same for white children. I don't know that HIDDEN FIGURES can be straightened out with discussion after the movie.

I don't see white parents trying to explain how white people have behaved and continue to behave in this country for hundreds of years BEFORE they even get to discussing what was left out and added to this specific movie.  
Black and brown parents have to explain at least tiny bits of ugly, accurate history at very young ages in order for their children to go to school and interact with white adults and white children that will subtly treat them badly. (Hopefully the aggressions are micro rather than macro when they are small)  

I'm guessing white children don't have the same base necessary to have a discussion of the details missing from HIDDEN FIGURES  
 Again, I think Melfi having a couple of snarling whie faces after the coffee scene and the fake bathroom scene (which is totally unbelievable  - watch it again, zero anger in white faces) would have communicated thousands and thousands of words each.

I truly think Melfi hurt this as a history lesson for white people by not making this movie more accurate. And I really think it could have been done with less than 30 seconds worth of film in about 4 to 5 places. 
TOP HIDDEN FIGURES
BOTTOM: THE HELP


A lot of people thought  THE HELP was a white savior movie. It wasn't in my opinion. 

The movie, based on a book by a white woman, is centered on --shockingly enough-- a white woman protagonist who is learning about the white racism that has been all around her all her life. This character comes to the realization that she can't save anybody and that she's putting other people in danger. 

It's annoying that whiteness is the center in a story ostensibly about black people. But the white female author is writing about her real self or an imaginary self. The white female author is writing about discovery of the obvious in regards to race. I don't think this is a bad thing since whites stilll suffer from this.  
Yet, THE HELP even though it's a comedy, was educational for white people if not for black people. 


To be specific, THE HELP's bathroom scenes are totally realistic despite being delivered as comedy. The oral histories in black families communicated this white behavior decades before this movie. But for white people this was probably the first time they'd seen how white people demeaned blacks in so many petty ways.

The biggest problem I had with THE HELP is that white content creators again made the effort to make it seem like this white behavior was limited to the south. (My parents lived all over this country while in the military. White folks were only subtly different, off-post, no matter where they lived.)

In my opinion, "Hidden Figures" is a much better example of a white savior movie.
 Kevin Costner saves Taraji P Henson again and again. That White German(?) Jewish guy tells Janelle Monae how to raise herself up to the engineer she should already be. 


In the end...

I liked HIDDEN FIGURES

I felt good about HIDDEN FIGURES

But I knew a white director was in charge before I went. 

Before I went, I guessed about the things I'd have to ignore, as a black woman, just like I did when I went to see "The Help."*

When I plan to enjoy being told a story at the movies or on television that's centered on black people and potentially enjoy it down to my bones, then black people  (mostly likely black women to avoid colorism issues) have to write it, direct it, and produce it.  

For me, the only exception to this rule is probably "The Color Purple"

So, I hope HIDDEN FIGURES wins an Oscar.  It'll open more doors to more black content. But if it's up against a film that is black acted, black directed, and black produced (MOONLIGHT), I'll hope that film wins instead so doors are opened for more authentically black content. 
* * * * * 

I think black people mis-labeled "The Help" as a white savior movie when black women did all the saving because 

1) black women's heroism is routinely erased  
2) a lot of black people carry so much shame from whites that they straight hate any black character not being depicted as some variation of King or Queen. (Not that Octavia Spencer didn't hit the stereotype button a few times in THE HELP, in BLACK AND WHITE, and probably in the upcoming THE SHACK  -- which is based on a book so chock full of stereotypes the movie must be better than the book in some ways.)