White heroism and villainy at the movies

Why Hidden Figures need to Get Out more

One of the most memorable sequences in this winter’s hit movie Hidden Figures is about going to the bathroom.

In a climactic speech, the mathematician Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, explains to her white colleagues that the reason she has not finished calculating the trajectory of John Glenn’s capsule is that she has to walk a half a mile every time she has to use the “colored only” bathrooms at NASA.

“I work like a dog day and night, living on coffee from a pot none of you want to touch,” she shouts. “Excuse me if I have to go to the restroom a few times a day.”

This would have been a perfect Oscar clip if she had been nominated

It’s a great moment. Director Ted Melfi has vividly dramatized how humiliating and irrational segregation was, at least for this white American moviegoer.

But that isn’t actually the climax of the sequence. After a few reaction shots, the curmudgeonly white boss played by Kevin Costner walks the staff over to the colored bathroom, gives a speech of his own — “We all pee the same color!” — and bashes the “Colored Ladies Room” sign off the wall with a mallet while a crowd of black women looks on.

There, I fixed racism for you

Based on true events, except for the white people

Nothing in this sequence actually happened. Now, Hidden Figures is based on Katherine Johnson’s true story, and that of two other extraordinary black women at NASA in the early 1960s. And the bathrooms were certainly segregated. But Johnson did not suffer for weeks until finally she made an eloquent speech; she simply used the other bathroom.

Would that have made an exciting scene in a movie? Maybe.

But Melfi and screenwriter Allison Schroeder have invented an undeniably satisfying dramatic device to make Johnson into a movie hero. That’s fair game in historical fiction.

What I’m more curious about is the other choice these (white) screenwriters made: to one-up the moment of Johnson’s glory with a macho curtain call for a white man.

Journalist Dexter Thomas was curious too. Back in January he asked Melfi to explain the choice in a video for MTV’s Vice News. Melfi’s answer: “There needs to be white people who do the right thing.”

“I just went on in the white one” is no “We all pee the same color”

Yes! There certainly is a need for white people to do the right thing.

And there certainly was that need in 1961 too. (I wish we had.)

But evidently, it’s also an urgent need for white people of today to be told that we did the right thing, even when we didn’t.

There certainly is a need for white people to do the right thing. And there certainly was that need in 1961 too. I wish we had.

Hollywood has bent over backwards to meet this need since the motion picture was invented. The Birth of a Nation and Gone With The Wind don’t just add speeches to make white people into heroes of history; their entire stories are built to portray them as exactly the noble actors they weren’t. Audiences made these upside-down epics blockbusters, and critics called them masterpieces.

Okay, black people DO have things to teach us (if they’re Sidney Poitier)

The civil rights movement forced American movies to acknowledge racism, or at least cast Sidney Poitier in lead roles. But they haven’t stopped feeding white audiences’ need to feel heroic.

The “white savior” trope

The vast majority of movies about racism make a white character the protagonist of the story. This pattern has become known as the “white savior” trope. A man might start as a bigot, but his grand redemption (read: his discovery of basic decency) is presented as the most significant theme of the story. Or a “good white person” demonstrates her exceptional tolerance so grandly that the black people around pay her deep gratitude. Gregory Peck left the courthouse to a standing ovation from black extras in To Kill a Mockingbird, which came out the same year Kevin Costner desegregated bathrooms at NASA.

White people HAVE been pretty terrific

Hidden Figures unquestionably centers on the powerful black women overcoming the obstacles of the white establishment. But it continues the tradition of pandering to white insecurities by depicting white authority deferring in ways it didn’t (and still doesn’t, very often). We even see the smug white colleague played by Jim Parsons pouring coffee for Taraji Henson — redeemed!

(Interestingly, the one white person who doesn’t get the last word is the female antagonist, played by Kirsten Dunst, who is checked by Octavia Spencer’s computer scientist character on her way up the ladder.)

How come Kirsten Dunst didn’t get to knock down any bathroom signs?

When white people aren’t behind the camera

But in the last decade, black directors have made successful, mainstream films that put white characters farther away from the center of the hero’s journey. Lee Daniels’ Precious and The Butler, Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, Justin Simien’s Dear White People, Ava DuVernay’s Selma, and Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight are stories about America in which white people on the margins, as antagonists or tentative allies.

They even pass the black equivalent of the Bechdel Test

Selma is particularly honest about what it takes to earn the status of white hero: three white characters are inspired to support Martin Luther King’s marches in modest ways. They are killed by white segregationists.

This, of course, actually happened.

‘Selma’ admits what actually happens to white heroes: they are killed by white segregationists.

And this year, black filmmaker Jordan Peele has gone even further. His hit “social thriller” Get Out invites the audience into the black male experience from its opening moments. We’re in a familiar horror movie scenario: a solitary figure anxiously talking on the phone in a poorly lit streetscape, a car with tinted windows driving slowly closer. But these references work like an analogy to remind black audiences — and help white audiences to understand — how being a black man minding his own business in a wealthy white suburb is as scary a situation as, say, being a white person in a poor black neighborhood.

Watching Get Out, I saw white people from the outside. And I felt something true about being white that Hidden Figures didn’t have the courage to let me feel.

Get Out goes on to test the empathy of white audiences, aggressively. From satirical jabs at our awkward cross-racial conversations to over-the-top depictions of pure horror-movie villainy, Peele isn’t considering my feelings.

Bradley Whitford would totally play me in the movie of my life

For audiences of color, this is simply a fresh representation of the everyday psychology of navigating America. For me, it’s like seeing a photo of the back of my head. From this angle, once I grow accustomed to the disorienting perspective, I can see how whiteness functions more clearly than any other filmmaker has shown me. I can even see the white characters in Get Out doing what white Americans have done in our movies for a hundred years: representing ourselves as heroic at the very same time as we exploit, dominate, and overpower.

If Ted Melfi were right and we need to see white people doing the right thing, then this movie would have failed. But Get Out is a spectacular smash hit — far more profitable than any of the other recent movies that center the black experience. It has earned even more than the smash hit Hidden Figures, and cost only a fifth of the budget. White audiences seem to be going along for the ride.

Perhaps we white audiences can learn to value stories in which we haven’t been inserted into heroic roles we rarely actually play.

This bodes well. Perhaps we white audiences can learn to value stories in which we haven’t been inserted into heroic roles we rarely actually play.

Perhaps if we see more stories through the eyes of black Americans, in which we are represented as the villains we have historically been — or the heroes we have sometimes been (at great cost) — we can understand just how severely we have been kidding ourselves. After countless hours of hobbits, Jedi knights, superheroes, and Kevin Costner, the hero journey for real white people has yet to begin.