One of the scenes centers around the bathroom, where Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, is shown running to the “Colored Ladies Only” bathrooms across the campus at NASA to relieve herself daily.
Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner, discovers this when Johnson returns from one of these bathroom breaks drenched from the rain. He apparently oblivious to the racism that has been taking place, grabs a crowbar, heads to the bathroom in the other building where Johnson has been going, and as a diverse crowd of Black women and white males look on, he takes down the “Colored Ladies Only” sign over the bathroom, he then delivers what is to be an emotional reject of Jim Crow segregation, “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 Sheerly, 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 Ladies Only” bathrooms,” and that none 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, as long as the right thing is achieved?”
There is another scene in which Johnson, played by Taraji, is seen finishing some last minute calculations that allow for the historic launch to proceed. She is seen delivering the calculations to Mission Control, but is not allowed to enter due to her being a black woman- that is until Al Harrison, played by Costner, her white boss appears and brings her in the room.
She is the lone black woman in a see of white males and is then allowed to watch the historic launch. The camera shows a series of traded glances between a benevolent white boss and a thankful black employee.
Again this was fabricated to make white people feel good about themselves. Johnson was interviewed and stated she was sitting at her desk when the historic 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 director and 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, seen 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 and interesting about three African American women and other some what diminished their role as standing strong in the face of Jim Crow.
In no uncertain terms does this white washing in this film 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 move should have allowed them the full credit these courageous women earned.