Sunday, June 10, 2018

On the Hidden Figures movie, and the inadequacy of the white savior/magical Negro distinction

Finally saw Hidden Figures, a movie I meant to see on opening day and just kept running into reasons to put off.

The quick take: Great movie. If you care about space flight or civil rights, see it. The casting is perfect, the directing is solid, the script is quietly competent.

But what I want to talk about is a moment that choked me up for a long minute after I asked Emma to pause the film, the "passing the chalk" shot when the white administrator gives the chalk to the main character so she can show everyone what she can do.

That shot is the moment that every civil rights struggle in the US results in: first rich white men gave the vote to poor white men, then white men gave the vote to black men, then men gave the vote to women, then straight people gave the right to marry to GLBTQ people. There has always come a time when the people who had full rights under the law were convinced to share those rights even though sharing weakened their power. This is the reason I continue to have hope for my species.

Some people say Costner's character is a white savior, but it makes as much sense to say he's a magical Negro: he's a supporting character whose purpose is to help the main characters. Supporting characters never have room to be fully realized: all we know about Costner's is that he claims to have a wife, but we never see him at home, so the wife could be imaginary or his name for a male lover, or anything the viewer cares to assume, because Costner's character's only purpose is to support the star. He does an excellent job, managing to be both gruff and understated simultaneously, but what's noticeable about his performance is no different than what's noticeable about traditional "magical Negro" performances: the actors take simple parts and make them memorable, even though they have less to do than the stars.

Hidden Figures is not a profound movie. It is better than that: it is an honest movie that deserves its success.