A while back, I made a promise on this blog to watch a bunch of movies about the experience of black people living in white-dominated societies. I have made a start, but not a finish . . . I am going to keep on making sure my movie diet is increasingly diverse. I can’t write one post about all of them, because (as I once said to a man who asked me to explain women to him), they are all different. Yes, each does cover the pervasiveness of both overt and subtle forms of racism encountered constantly by the protagonists, but that’s not the real story.
(An excellent exposure of subtle kinds of racism blacks encounter in daily life today is provided by Key and Peele’s skit “Negrotown”—search for it on youtube.)
So this first post in this area is not so much about “Hidden Figures” as it is about story. I always come back to story. What I found myself thinking as I watched this movie, after watching several others about real people who happened to be black, is that these stories have always been with us. I don’t mean stories of oppression or wrongs, although those stories certainly have always been with us too, and they are told in these movies. And that is, I admit, the story I thought I was going to be watching, the story I expected.
I got much more.
When I wrote my book about heroines in stories, I did so because people seemed unaware of or uninterested in the actual story so many women have lived both in real life and fiction, and have been living out for millennia. Most of feminist literature seems to be limited to that story of oppression and wrongs done. Valid and valuable, yes, we need to know about these things . . . but what I was drawn to was the story of women being amazing. And that’s the story that hooked me in all these movies: [black] people being amazing.
“Hidden Figures,” for instance, is about three women of astounding intelligence who pull off so many miracles for the space program that I was reminded of the “Clan of the Cave Bear” novels in which the protagonist Ayla discovers or invents everything—how to harness fire, how to tame horses, yada yada yada, to the point that the reader starts to protest because it’s not believable that one person would do all that. But I did my research, and these women were that amazing. (For example, John Glenn really did refuse to get in the capsule until Katherine Johnson had checked the math!) We have been deprived of their story for two reasons: they were women, and more than that, they were black.
So for me the first story, the story of racism, the story of the wrongs and the oppression, took on an additional aspect: the suppression of the second story, the story of amazing people being amazing, because of a factor that has nothing to do with their amazingness. Sociologists call the suppression of a particular group in cultural works symbolic annihilation; if we don’t see women or blacks or queer folks portrayed honestly in books or movies–or history texts–it’s as if they don’t exist, period.
I’ve spent my life trying, as a privileged white person, to understand the first story, to be educated, to be “woke” as people today put it. But now I think that the way to overcome the first story, to make it part of history and not current events, is to tell the second story. Just as these movies are doing, as television is doing, as people are doing with biographies. Because when people watch or read these stories of amazing people, they do get it about the racism, but more importantly, they can see the individuals portrayed as real people, not just ordinary people, but amazing, important people who have made tremendous contributions to our society despite huge obstacles.
And surely the thought will enter their minds as it did mine: how many more amazing people are out there, and what could they do if they had no obstacles to overcome first, if people focused on what they can do and ignored everything else as irrelevant? If the first thought in a teacher’s mind, in a prospective employer’s mind, was “in what way are you amazing?”
I’m hearing a lot about how we need to educate teachers as well as students as to the issues people of color face. Rather than having some consultant come in to the schools and talk about racism, here’s my idea: show everyone these movies.
Start with “Hidden Figures.”