Anyway, we liked the movie a lot, but it made me a little angry, and, mostly, it frustrated me for a number of reasons. Now, the movie is, in my opinion, very well done in that it captures a good deal of the spirit of the times: times which I remember all too well. After all, I was in high school during those times (1958-1962), so I was reasonably aware of what was going on in the country, aware of the space race, aware of the sit-ins and other early aspects of the civil rights movement, aware of the growing concerns relating to race relations, and I was upset about them, at least to the extent that a young, white Northern male was likely to be.
I am also aware that the movie is not completely true to historical fact, but, like most works of historical fiction, has been simplified and has altered historical fact to make a better story. (Yes, I did do a bit of historical research.) Okay, such changes aren’t really very surprising, nor are they unusual; it happens all the time in movies, novels, and TV shows. The fact remains that, for the most part, it presents a reasonably accurate picture of the time and of events which actually did occur.
I think what frustrates me, as one who was alive and reasonably aware at the time, is that the story has been so little known. The facts may not have been quite as dramatic as the movie makes them out to be, but the racism and sexism portrayed can be established as fact, and, at least to me, they mark one of the more shameful periods of our collective history as a nation.
What frustrated me the most, however, was my realization that there is still much too much of these underlying attitudes in the present, largely due, I think, to the belief that we have now moved beyond that and that this sort of problem simply doesn’t exist anymore. I have to say that the evidence seems to suggest that this is simply not the case. In other words, it’s a lie. And, perhaps most disturbing is the idea that, where such things do exist, they are limited to some, few folks on the “fringe.” That simply doesn’t appear to be true, at least to me. It shows up all too much on the news for that to be the case.
There is a wonderful scene in the movie where the white, female supervisor who is responsible for the “colored computers” (portrayed, apparently accurately, as all females) says to the Dorothy Vaughan character “Despite what you may think, I have nothing against y'all.” The character replies: “I know. I know you probably believe that.” I think the point of this line is that it’s probable that this white woman probably did (would have) actually believed what she said. And that’s all too much of the problem to this day.
It’s easy to point out the prejudicial bias of, say, the KKK and other groups who are, at least, up-front about their racial and/or sexual attitudes. It’s harder to recognize the subtle biases of those of us more “progressive” folks, who, all too often, I’m afraid, are just as likely to have the same sort of racist, sexist or other prejudicial attitudes. We just bury them more deeply, so they don’t stand out. And, we don’t “believe” that we are prejudiced, either, which may be another lie we tell ourselves.
Yes, I am admitting that I probably have at least some of these same attitudes, but that I bury them just as deeply as most of the rest of us “progressively minded” people do. I refer to the attitude, which I did hear expressed, that one should vote for Obama (back in that day) because he was “African American,” or that one should have voted for Hilary (a bit more recently) because she was a woman. Does it strike anyone else that these are absurd ideas? Neither of those are qualifications for any elective office. Of course, they shouldn’t be disqualifications, either.
I think that it’s okay to be proud of ones’ ethnic/racial/religious heritage, but I’m afraid that we may be doing our country more harm than good when we choose to identify ourselves as Irish, German, Italian, Hispanic, White, Black, Chinese, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Pagan (get the idea, pick your choice)-Americans. As best I know, I am about 98% European (Western European [German, French, Swiss, Belgian, Dutch, maybe a bit of Northern Italian, etc.]; Irish, British, a bit of Iberian and a touch of Scandinavian). That would suggest that I am Christian in terms of religious heritage (which seems to correspond with what family history I know). But, if my family history is correct, I have had some ancestors on this continent since the earliest days of English settlement (Plymouth 1620). But, I also have ancestors from many other parts, of, mostly, Europe. So, although I’m of European extraction, I’m really just an American.
This means to me that I should be free to identify with any and all of my ethnic background(s). Now I have no real quibble with anyone who (whether really entitled to, or not) identifies with a specific ethnic/racial/religious heritage (as in Italian-American, German-American, Irish-American, or African-American), but it seems to me that the important point is that we are all American! That really should be our primary identification. Yes, we should be proud of our heritage, honor our traditions, but we should remember that what unites us is the “American,” which should be most important, not the “whatever” which marks our differences. As the character played by Kevin Costner says in Hidden Figures, “Here at NASA we all pee the same color.” And that’s really true for ALL Americans, not just those at some fictional NASA.
Unfortunately, I suspect that far too many well-intentioned, liberal-minded folks will vote to give Hidden Figures, or Fences (a movie I haven’t seen, but I know the original award-winning play pretty well) awards because they are “Black” films, or have “African-American” cast members, etc. rather than because they feel that these people did the “best” work of the year. Of course they will claim that they gave their vote to the “best,” but that’s probably not really likely to be completely honest.
Personally, I find the whole idea of these awards rather silly, because I don’t think one can make a meaningful, objective evaluation of any sort of art. Who is better, Rembrandt or Picasso? Mozart or Gershwin? Why? If you can produce some objective criteria, I’d be surprised. No, I suspect that “liberal guilt” will be a big factor when these films and actors are given awards. I’m afraid that those awards will do more to make the award voters feel like they are not behaving prejudicially, when, in fact, at least some of them almost certainly will be.
Now, I am NOT suggesting that the movies and actors I mention AREN’T worthy of awards, if such awards have to be given; just that the awards shouldn’t be given for the wrong reasons and that I find the whole idea of the pretense of objective evaluation of art another of the major stupid lies we all tell ourselves. We seem to be telling ourselves that OUR motives are pure, unlike those of others. I doubt that. We all have our prejudices and we do neither ourselves, nor our country, any service by denying that. What we have to do is to recognize that these prejudices exist and to do our best not to let them count for much, at least in our actions.
I went to all white schools up through Sixth Grade because the school system was built around neighborhoods (and tended to follow bus routes) and there weren’t African-American kids in my “neighborhood.” (That may well have been due to bias in where housing was available to African-Americans, but that’s another story.) There weren’t very many (if any) Jewish kids in that elementary school either, as I remember it. Beginning in Junior High (Seventh Grade, for me) the schools included both “Black” and Jewish kids because the (then two) Junior Highs drew from a number of feeder elementary schools and the (one) High School included all of the students in those grades. I found that, while it was more difficult to have friends who didn’t live near where you did, there were African-American and Jewish kids whom I liked, and some I didn’t care much for and (at least I think) it was because I either liked or didn’t like them as people. I’d like to think that religion, color, ethnicity didn’t really seem of much importance. At least I certainly wasn’t conscious of those as factors. Some folks seemed to be what I considered to be “good” people; some didn’t seem so much so.
Pretending to “like” or dislike an entire class, or group, is silly. Simply looking at people as people seems much more intelligent. That’s probably a bit too simplistic, but wouldn’t the world (at least the country) be better off if we all at least tried to look at people as individuals to enjoy, or not, rather than classes to be “better” than? I suspect so. Couldn’t we at least make the attempt?