'Hidden Figures' And The Diversity Conversation We Aren't Having

Director Ted Melfi weighs in on what it means to be a white filmmaker telling a black story.
Michael Stewart via Getty Images

Of the nine films competing for the Best Picture award at this Sunday’s Oscars, three have predominantly black leading casts ― “Fences,” “Moonlight,” and “Hidden Figures.” But only one, “Hidden Figures,” has a white director ― a fact that was deemed largely irrelevant up until last month, when it emerged that the film may have engaged in some “whitewashing” of history.

Before we get into this, here are a few things to know about “Hidden Figures,” if you haven’t seen it yet. It is a genuinely wonderful movie. It tells the important, nearly forgotten story of the history-making contributions black female mathematicians and engineers made to the NASA space program. It features stellar, award-worthy performances from three of our great black actresses (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae). It’s inspiring countless young girls and people of color to take an interest in STEM.

And yes, it has a white savior scene.

The scene comes after mathematician Katherine Johnson (played by Henson) is forced to run back and forth in the rain between one NASA building with whites-only bathrooms, and another NASA building 30 minutes away that has “colored-only” bathrooms.

When her supervisor Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) discovers this, he rips the Colored Ladies Room sign off the door with a crowbar, and delivers a stirring speech announcing that bathrooms at NASA, from here on out, will be desegregated. “Here at NASA we all pee the same color,” he declares.

Theodore Melfi, the director and co-writer of the film, admitted in an interview with Vice News in January that the scene never happened in real life, but was added to the film by him. Indeed, Johnson revealed to Vice that she personally didn’t even bother to pay attention to the “whites-only” signs on NASA bathrooms. (The running back-and-forth between bathrooms incident actually happened to Mary Jackson, on page 105 of the book on which the film is based).

"Hidden Figures" director Theodore Melfi.
"Hidden Figures" director Theodore Melfi.
Steve Granitz via Getty Images

Because of this embellishment to the story, Melfi, (who happens to be white), has been accused by some of whitewashing the “Hidden Figures” story in order to better appeal to white audiences. As a filmmaker trying to adapt a non-fiction book into a moving piece of entertainment, Melfi doesn’t quite get the criticism. For him, the fictionalized scene is the difference between making a documentary and a film.

Since he was trying to adapt a non-fiction book into an entertaining and moving piece of entertainment, the fictionalized scene is simply “representative of the reality,” says Melfi.

“The fact is this: NASA was desegregated by a white male. NASA was not desegregated by a black male. NASA was not desegregated by white women,” Melfi told The Huffington Post via phone on Feb.17.

“Floyd Thompson, a white man, desegregated NASA. Period.”

According to NASA, Thompson, Associate Director of NACA which was then being turned into NASA, did send a memo dissolving the segregated West Area Computers center in May 1958, effectively desegregating facilities ― with little fanfare. A scene of Thompson (who Melfi says he didn’t even have the rights to include in the script) sending a memo would have been far less cinematic. So Costner’s character got a flashier version of a not-so-flashy truth. The question is: does that make the scene’s inclusion better, or worse?

For Melfi, it seems that how things happened in this story is far less relevant than capturing the essence and the emotion at the heart of the narrative, and evoking a specific response from the audience. That’s the job of the filmmaker, after all ― to manipulate, coax and coerce the viewer to feel something. In the scene, as Johnson, soaked from the rain, describes the indignity of having to walk half a mile just to use a bathroom, we’re made to feel pity, empathy. And when Costner’s character does the “right thing” and desegregates the bathrooms, we get catharsis, reassurance: decent people do exist.

“These are creative choices, these are not catering to a white audience or catering to a black audience, this is making the best movie,” Melfi asserts.

The director told HuffPost that there were “as many black eyes on this film and the production of this film as there were white eyes,” including producer Pharrell Williams and his partner Mimi Valdez. He’s very adamant that the Costner scene was not an instance of whitewashing. But whether a white man desegregated the NASA bathrooms or not is, at this point, kind of irrelevant, and far less interesting than Melfi’s own processing of the small waves of criticism he’s received over this in a vast sea of praise.

Look, as a director, you’re open to any kind of criticism. I accept that reality, it’s fine,” the filmmaker insists. But he also admits to finding the fallout after his reaction to accusations of a“white savior” storyline “hurtful.”

It was very upsetting to me because I am at a place where I’ve lived my life colorless and I grew up in Brooklyn. I walked to school with people of all shapes, sizes, and colors, and that’s how I’ve lived my life,” Melfi explains.

“So it’s very upsetting that we still have to have this conversation. I get upset when I hear ‘black film,’ and so does Taraji P. Henson... It’s just a film. And if we keep labeling something ‘a black film,’ or ‘a white film’— basically it’s modern day segregation. We’re all humans. Any human can tell any human’s story. I don’t want to have this conversation about black film or white film anymore. I wanna have conversations about film.”

It’s questionable whether you can have conversations about film in 2017 and not talk about race. Melfi’s frustration probably springs from how warmly the film has been received by the black community, and particularly the impact its had on girls and communities of color (in January, the film was screened for 10,000 young girls in Los Angeles). But his frustration is also a perfect example of how, when it comes to open dialogue about depictions of people of color on screen, it behooves white people (especially those who position themselves as “allies”) to listen.

“If we keep labeling something ‘a black film,’ or ‘a white film’— basically it’s modern day segregation.”

Who is “allowed” to tell black stories in Hollywood is definitely up for debate. It isn’t, for lack of a better phrase, a black-and-white issue. And the inclusion of the bathroom scene doesn’t make Melfi a bad filmmaker, or a bad person, or a racist. But his suggestion that a feel-good scene like that was needed for the marketability and overall appeal of the film speaks to the fact that Hollywood at large still has a long way to go in telling black stories, no matter how many strides have been made.

But criticism is not always about drumming up clicky headlines, causing controversy, or making white people feel upset about not being “woke” enough. Sometimes it’s merely about starting a conversation ― and creating progress.

It’s ultimately a testament to the black women at the heart of this story that a 40-second, fictionalized “white savior” speech from Kevin Costner can’t detract from the overall power of the narrative. But here’s what’s more interesting: as Hollywood strives towards further and further inclusivity both in front of and behind the camera, how will white filmmakers ― directors, producers, writers, casting directors and so on ― react to being held accountable for telling POC stories?

And more importantly ― how will they hold themselves accountable?

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