'Hidden Figures' Shows How Complicated Activism Can Be

While watching the brilliant biopic, it's easy to draw parallels to the women's march.

by Eileen G'Sell
Jan 20 2017, 6:12pm

20th Century Fox

"You know, despite what you think, I don't have anything against y'all." Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), Hidden Figures

Sound familiar? In a time when many a Trump voter has been quick to qualify "but I'm not racist," this line from Theodore Melfi's Cold War-era biopic feels eerily on point. Hidden Figures orbits the lives of three African American women—Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and aspiring engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe)—whose contributions to NASA helped make space travel possible. It's the kind of movie that could at first come across as feel-good Oscar-bait, another Hollywood studio piece (a la The Help) ostensibly about strong women of color that actually aims to make white people feel better about themselves ("Look how far we've come! I can't believe how racist white folks used to be! Good thing we weren't all that way!"). While this film flirts with that terrain—Kevin Costner plays the earnest white-guy boss, Al Harrison, who takes a sledge hammer to the "colored" restroom sign because "at NASA, we all pee in the same color"—overall Hidden Figures doesn't pay enough attention to the white characters to make it about them. And it shouldn't be.

Fast-forward to January 21st, 2017: the day that the Women's March on Washington is scheduled to take place. If Hidden Figures can sometimes suggest that "Black Lives Matter, but only when up against these Commie bastards," the women's march (initially, and problematically, dubbed the "Million Women March" by its white female organizers) has felt to some like a too-little, too-late hoo-ha from the same demographic who helped put Trump into office. "As fearful as I am for the lives that are most vulnerable in the wake of a Trump presidency…" wrote columnist Jamilah Lemieux, "there was a tiny, tiny part of me [after the election] that felt a tiny, tiny bit of satisfaction at seeing how sad many White women were. Finally, they got to know some semblance of the pain and anguish that accompanies our lives in this country."

What Hidden Figures does—in a small, but vital way—is expose to many white, female viewers not only the absurd inequities endured by professional black women, but also the legacy of black female leadership that traditional feminist accounts have largely ignored. The film suggests how often white women have failed to join hands with their black sisters—and how, when they have, it has often been in service of their own white interests.

The film's climax centers on John Glenn's triumphant Friendship 7 landing in the Bahamas—a feat salvaged at the 11th hour by Katherine's nimble number magic. But the real emotional climax—especially as pertains to white female cluelessness in the wake of black realities—takes place in an integrated ladies room on NASA headquarters. After washing her hands (in a possible stroke of irony), supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Dunst) accepts a paper towel from Dorothy, whom she has consistently undermined—along with other "colored computers"—in their efforts to move up in the agency. "You know, despite what you think, I don't have anything against y'all," Mitchell tells her before leaving. "I know," says Dorothy, pausing at the sink. "I know you probably believe that."

Self-deluding white women have been around for some time—and so have women of color who, like Dorothy, have responded with considerable generosity. It's with such largesse that many women have aired their qualms against the women's march, prompting a shift in platform to one Slate has called "unapologetically progressive." Activist heavyweights Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, and Carmen Perez—all nonwhite—have joined original cofounder Bob Bland to lead a national committee of diverse female organizers. Regardless (or, perhaps, because) of such conscious inclusion, not everyone has been happy. When Bland requested all Caucasians participating to "understand their privilege, and acknowledge the struggle that women of color face," a flurry of white women went on the defense, with one saying, "Every woman in our culture is a 2nd class citizen period." The statement essentially erases centuries of racial injustice from which white women largely profited.

"[W]hite activism continues to be lazy activism," claimed Rosie Campos, who stepped down as leader of Pennsylvania's women's march over concerns of lack of transparency. Challenging other white women to face up to years of acquiescence and latent hypocrisy, Campos implored them to go beyond "good intentions" and consider the breadth and depth of injustice on a broader scale. "Our [white] social activism is only stirred when it's convenient for us," she wrote. "We leave it to Black people to fight their own battles…[till] eventually something comes along that affects white women directly. Grabbing our pussies? Taking away our birth control? Overturning Roe v. Wade? Hell no. Black women, where are you? This affects you, too! Help us! We care about you!"

In St. Louis—a stronghold of Ferguson Action and Black Lives Matter protest—women's march plans have been heated. The original march coordinator, lacking political organizing experience, predictably sought other white women to assist her. When 17-year-old Mya Petty, recently awarded the Martin Luther King Jr. Youth Service Award from Washington University in St. Louis for her leadership and community service, called the March leaders out for being exclusionary, several white women called Petty "hostile" and demanded that she be "kinder," as though compassion is a state of friendly compliance they somehow are owed. 

In Hidden Figures, white women align with the three heroines inconsistently, at best. It's no accident that Vivian attempts to make good with Dorothy only after she has been selected to program the IBM 4070—the machine that could jeopardize the jobs of all female "computers," black or white. "Any upward movement is movement for all of us," Dorothy declares earlier when Katherine is promoted. But the "us" here isn't all women; it is decidedly women of color. Throughout the movie, black female staff never seek solidarity with the white female staff, and they clearly see no reason to do so.

It remains to be seen if Saturday's march can spread real sisterhood across color lines. "The feeling of 500,000—even a million—women coming together from all different walks of life?" proposed Carmen Perez in an interview with Glamour. "That's radical resistance. It will foster a spirit of togetherness, elevate morale, and say that there's a force to be reckoned with in this country: women." As, in Hidden Figures, Dorothy grudgingly welcomes the white women eager to learn how to program the IBM, so should white women feel grateful to all women of color hopefully leading the way this weekend. As Gloria Steinem herself acknowledged, "black women invented the feminist movement." Whether fighting Soviet imperialism or Trump's impending regime, a new, bold activist calculus is required to survive the launch. 

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