The critically acclaimed movie “Hidden Figures” which celebrates African American women was white washed-and it didn’t have to be.
One of the scenes centers around the bathroom. Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, is shown running to the “Colored Only“ bathrooms across the campus to relieve herself daily.
Al Harrison played by Kevin Costner discovers this when Johnson returns from one of these long bathroom breaks. He apparently was unaware that this racism had been taking place. He grabs a crowbar, heads to the bathroom in the other building, and as a diverse crowd of black women and white men look on, he delivers what is to be an emotional rejection of Jim Crow segregation, smashing down the “Colored Only“ sign that hung over the bathroom.
“No more colored restrooms. No more white restrooms,” he declares. “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color.”
It was a very dramatic scene but it never happened.
The film was based on a book written by Margot Lee Shetterly, which in itself is based on interviews with the Black women who worked at Langley Research Center. The book clearly states that Johnson, “refused to enter the Colored bathrooms,” and that no one ever tried to make her do so. The interviewer confirmed this, by asking Johnson if she used the Colored bathrooms. She replied: “I just went on in the white one.”
The director Theodore Melfi was asked in an interview with Vice News why he had chosen to include a scene that never happened, and whether he thought portraying Johnson as being saved by a benevolent white character diminished what she actually did in real life.
He said he didn’t see a problem with adding a white hero into the story. “There needs to be white people who do the right thing, there needs to be black people who do the right thing,” Melfi said. “And someone does the right thing. And so who cares who does the right thing, as longs as the right thing is achieved?”
There is another scene in which Johnson is seen finishing some last minute calculations that allow for the historic launch to proceed. She delivers the calculations to Mission Control, but is not allowed to enter-due to her being a black woman- that is until Harrison appears and brings her in.
She is the lone black woman in a sea of white males and is then allowed to watch the historic launch. The camera then shows a series of traded glances between a benevolent white boss and a humbled black employee.
Again this was fabricated to make white people feel good about themselves. Johnson was interviewed and stated she was at her desk when the launch took place; she was not allowed in the Mission Control room. The book confirms Johnson watched the launch from her desk on a television.
Although “Hidden Figures” is not a documentary and doesn’t need to follow the true -life story to the letter, I believe it should keep the integrity of the story line. Why would the writers need to add a white guy who “does the right thing”?
Is it to provide a white character that allows white viewers to feel good about themselves doing the right thing? I say yes.
If the truth be told, in 2017, just like back in the 60’s, there are many white people who sit in silence while their fellow black citizens are discriminated against, beaten and killed by police.
What this director Theodore Melfi did was take a story that was compelling, interesting, about three African American women and somewhat diminished their role as standing strong in the face of Jim Crow.
In no uncertain terms does this white washing take away from this very important story about these brilliant black women and their contribution to NASA in the first successful launching of a man into space.
But the movie should have allowed them the full credit that these courageous women earned.