After I finished watching the first trailer for Hidden Figures a few months ago, I immediately sent the link to my mom. My mom, who happens to be a black female computer scientist, responded back and told me that she had tears in her eyes after watching it. She told me that she couldn’t wait to see it with my aunt, a black woman with an engineering degree who also worked in computer science, and my grandmother, who worked hard to guarantee that both of them (twins, mind you) went to college. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t tear up too.
As I grew up, I didn’t understand why my parents made our whole family go see every critically-lauded movie about black people. I also didn’t fully understand why my parents were so adamantly against me watching shows like Good Times. My mom got mad when I showed her an All That sketch where Kenan Thompson and Nick Cannon were playing rude female cashiers at a convenience store.
Then The Help came out. It was a high-profile movie about segregation, and Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer were both favorites to win Oscars in their respective categories. During the holidays, my family has a tradition of watching movies together and my older family members have a tradition of talking during all of the key moments. My mom wanted to show my grandmother and great-grandmother the movie, and this time, it was different. No one was talking, and my great-grandmother, who would typically leave a few times during the movie to tend to things, watched the whole thing. She had been a maid. She was born in 1919, and wasn’t afforded the educational opportunities my mom’s generation was the first to get. My great-grandmother, one of the quickest, smartest people I had the pleasure of knowing, made a living cleaning the houses of rich white people, and my mom grew up going with her and playing with the kids’ toys. I could feel a tangible pain in the room because in some of those harsh moments, like when Octavia Spencer’s character is fired for daring to use the inside bathroom during a hurricane; my older family members were identifying with her directly. Octavia Spencer won an Oscar for her role as Minnie, and while my whole family was rooting for Viola Davis to win Best Actress, as we know she did not win.
But now I question what I was rooting for. To this day, only one black woman has ever won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role, Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball. With all due respect to the film as its own piece of art, Berry won for playing a woman who sleeps with a racist white guy who sent her convict husband to the electric chair. If you look at the list of the other black women who’ve won Oscars (all for playing supporting roles), you’ll notice a disturbing trend. Lupita Nyong’o won for playing a slave. Octavia Spencer won for playing a sassy maid. Mo’Nique won for playing an abusive welfare mother. The first black person ever to win an Oscar, Hattie McDaniels, won for playing a slave in Gone with the Wind. No black woman has ever been nominated for playing someone with a college education. Beyond the fact that Viola Davis is commonly cited as one of the best actors to ever work in film, I was desperately rooting for her to win because I wanted to see a black woman accepting that trophy for the second time in history. But if she had won, it would be for, once again, playing a maid. Black women have a long history of playing maids in movies. Did the second black woman to ever win that award, in 2011, really have to be playing yet another one?
I don’t mean to criticize the actresses, or the specific parts, or the films. These are incredible pieces of work, and the actresses did an incredible job bringing their characters to life. Individual films are not the problem. The problem is that society chooses to focus on certain films, and certain portrayals, because on some subconscious level, the movies and characters fit society’s expectation of where black women belong.
Hidden Figures has used the phrase “based on the untold story” in a lot of their marketing, and it’s true; the story of Katherine Johnson is largely untold. I wish I’d learned about her in first grade when we talked about Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. It would’ve been great for me, a black kid, to see what was possible for someone like me; and it would’ve been great for all of my white classmates to see black people making accomplishments outside of the Civil Rights Movement.
I think hearing about my mom’s reaction to Hidden Figures is when I finally figured it all out. I had a new understanding of why my mom brought me into the voting booth with her when she voted for Obama, and why our whole family went to Washington, D.C. and stood on the lawn during the Inauguration. It’s all about representation. It’s all about being reminded that you are capable of anything, no matter what other people have told you. It’s about showing the world that people who look like us can accomplish great things.
I was blessed to grow up in a household where I was constantly reminded of this. Of course there were times where I had self-doubt, but overall I never had a doubt that I was capable of great things if I worked hard. However not everyone grows up with parents who so cautiously guard the type of media they consume. That’s why as a filmmaker, I will continue to create and promote art that mirrors the diverse world we live in. It’s time to stop letting uninformed people tell the stories of others with stereotypes instead of compassion.
This post originally appeared on SpacedOut.