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Hidden Figures Director Says He Fictionalized a Scene to Create a White Hero Moment

• Jan 31, 2017


Hidden Figures is breaking box office records and illuminating incredible black woman history that has, it seems, been purposefully left out of the history books.

The true story of how black mathematicians Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson’s knowledge was critical to launching NASA space missions is incredible. Along with celebrating the main characters, Hidden Figures also celebrates benevolent white Americans who helped them along the way.

In one scene Johnson, played by Taraji P Henson, runs half a mile in pouring rain to use the colored bathroom at another NASA facility, because she is not allowed to use the whites only bathroom in her own building.

When she returns, completely drenched, her white supervisor, played by Kevin Costner, dramatically destroys the Colored Ladies Room sign and gives a powerful speech including the line,

No more colored restrooms. No more white restrooms…. Here at NASA, we all pee the same color.”

Many movie goers have hailed it one of the best scenes in the film, but it never actually happened. In real life, Johnson says, she simply defied the law and used the Whites Only bathroom. The book that the film is based on flatly states that Johnson “refused to so much as enter the Colored bathrooms.” Which, to me, is a far more powerful and subversive statement.

It’s not uncommon for biopics to fabricate stories for emotional effect. Hidden Figures is, after all, a non-documentary film. However, the objective of this scene is questionable.

In an interview with Vice News, director Theodore Melfi was directly asked why he felt the need to add the scene.

I then asked the film’s director, Theodore Melfi, why he had chosen to include a scene that never happened, and whether he thought portraying Johnson as being saved by a benevolent white character diminished what she did in real life.

He said he didn’t see a problem with adding a white hero into the story.

There needs to be white people who do the right thing, there needs to be black people who do the right thing,” Melfi said. “And someone does the right thing. And so who cares who does the right thing, as long as the right thing is achieved?”

No doubt the women of Hidden Figures encountered white people who needed their expertise and were willing to look past their color to get it. But does that make them heroic?

Ladies what do you think?

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40 Comments on "Hidden Figures Director Says He Fictionalized a Scene to Create a White Hero Moment"

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blindie
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I definitely had “white savior” vibes when I saw that scene in the movie.

Taylor
Guest

But why does there have to be a “white hero” .….and to have to make us a story to have a “white heor” is beyond ridiculous..stop letting white shame and white privelege downplay the truth!

Miss Bean
Guest

There needs to be white people who do the right thing, there needs to be black people who do the right thing… And so who cares who does the right thing, as long as the right thing is achieved?” (WACK RESPONSE)

But in reality the white guy didn’t do the right thing, and that is an important part of the story. The director just put sugar in the chicken noodle soup! (weird analogy, I know).

JLTR
Guest

Dear White people,

Why do you, when presented with stories of Black perseverance and success, feel COMPELLED to insert White Saviors into them?

Why do you actively dismiss every part of history where you hindered or outright destroyed the progress of other peoples, yet write your names all over their success?

Signed,

JapaneseLunchTimeRush

TWA4now
Guest

I think they tolerate her color to help them get what they needed. They needed her expertise and I hope they eventually accepted her despite her color. We all need each–for real.

Ms B
Guest

In the scheme of things, is it that deep really now?

MsLong
Guest

Yes it is. Removing the truth to insert a “white hero” moment is absurd. Reflect the truth which was another moment in history where persons of color are needed yet tolerated to achieve said goal. Then here comes the “white hero” to deflect or disregard the truth and take credit for or hi light self.

mikxtr
Guest

did you ask him WHY there needs to be a white hero?

Renee
Guest
This is again why we are not all the way there. Why is it so hard to give full credit to a black person where it is deserved? What we see here in editing the truth (in such a big way I might add) is a display of institutional white gulit and white priveldge. Of course there were people on both sides of the color/race spectrum that fought for equal human rights. But in this scene and in this movie, it was about brave women having courage to be brave whether or not anyone helped them. Changing the scene shows… Read more »
Kristal
Guest

There needs to be white people who do the right thing.”

I understand how people could feel like he was trying to diminish what she actually had to do to overcome that. Or feeling like he had to insert a fabricated “white savior”. But we could really call him is a fabricated “White role model”. Because there do need to be examples of white people doing the RIGHT thing. It’s a shame it didn’t happen like that, but it’s a great example of how we should stand up for the oppressed.

Lisa
Guest

I agree that there “need to be examples of white people doing the RIGHT thing.” But is it right to manufacture examples when none exist? There is a reason that our nation is racially fractured–too many white people actively did the wrong thing or easily accepted and ignored the wrong around them. That and the definition of “wrong” included challenging racism and the definition of “right” including maintaining it.

fuzzyecho
Guest

I prefer role models that aren’t made up. The truth in this case was far more powerful. And had the virtue of being true.

Ebony T.
Guest
This doesn’t bother me at all. Instead of automatically assuming such a scene was put in solely to “make white folks feel better” let’s consider that It could be a representation of what the director felt SHOULD have happened, even if people back then weren’t strong enough to stand against social norms. And for the record, those who act as if standing up against social norms, even if you feel they’re wrong, is easy lack true knowledge of psychology(specifically; social psychology) and sociocultural anthropology. It’s not easy.…or we’d surely have a lot less genocide and racial/national-based hate in our global… Read more »
Kaz
Guest
I agree with everything you’ve pointed out, with the exception of what you’ve said condoning the director’s choice. Truth is powerful, and is after all is said and done, the truth. It’s not called liberating for nothing. To maintain credibility alone, the story should be told as is, warts & all. Some truths are far to uncomfortable and inconvenient for those not willing to hear it, and a host of tactics are used to silence those who reveal/speak it. Let’s not condone any kind of ‘glossing over/negating or wishful thinking’ treatment of the truth in this instance. There’s too much… Read more »
Lisa
Guest
1. Just because it doesn’t “bother you at all” doesn’t mean that it isn’t bothersome or problematic. 2. An act of cultural critique (of a film, book, or album) is not the same as “hate and negativity.” 3. Actively thinking about the world in which we live is key to understanding it and to shaping the long arc of justice (or injustice, as the case may be). If you are familiar with the disciplines of anthropology and social psychology, you know this to be true. 4. Your claim that “too many black-rights ppl” eschew “unity and peace” is as spurious… Read more »
Raven
Guest

If you read the books it also says Johnson was able to get away with using the whites only bathroom because she was lighter skinned. So she was able to ignore a lot of the colored only rules. I dont think that would have translated in the movies will because Taraji’s darker skin tone.

Kaz
Guest
If anyone’s seen 12 Years A Slave, look for the scene where Brad Pitt’s character plays a ‘pivotal’ role in helping the enslaved Solomon Northup to obtain his freedom — Turns the whole situation around.…cue the music … The whole scene…well.. It’s cringeworthy viewing that mars an otherwise powerful true story. Can’t help suspecting Pitt was pandered to and the screenwriters falling over themselves to ‘do him (Brad) due justice’ by ensuring he — no wait ‘they’ would be seen as all things good. .…. If only! I know Northup was indeed helped with the use of a letter to… Read more »
Jen Baker
Guest

History is full of white people who didn’t do the right thing. We need to own up to that and stop trying to rewrite it. And moving forward I hope there are more of us willing to do the right thing — looks like we’re going to get all too many chances to try.

Graciela Tiscareno-Sato
Guest

Ugh. I’m okay with directors writing in white hero man moments into movies about black women as long as they write women of color SHEro moments into ALL movies starring white men.

You with me?

Krishna
Guest
I found the scene disturbing because the dude was beating the “colored ladies” sign. If the director wanted to make a choice for some white hero element let it be toned down to having a maintenance person get out they’re tool kit and take the sign down like an institution does that kind of thing. Why all the black women watching Tarzan violently trash their hall way. But what I really wanted to see was Taraji head back to watch the launch and touch down with her sisters instead of hanging’ with the people who were so cold to her… Read more »
Edwina
Guest

It’s trite and unnecessary. Got Kevin Costner’s ego written all over it. I’m a fan of most of his movies but his need to be viewed as the hero is legendary.

megan
Guest
I am tired of the Race, being an issue. I am a White Woman who was raised by a Black man, as a family we faced racism from all races. Whites because my moms married a black man, Blacks because he was raising white kids. We were taught that no one race is above another. Today I have a Hispanic husband and “mixed” kids. And still today my girls are facing racism in school even in Kindergarten. WHEN do we a parents say enough is enough, Hate breeds hate. I am raising my girls to know that they are no… Read more »
Jitka
Guest

Interesting. I was wondering why he destroyed that sign instead of the “Whites Only” sign which presumably hung in front of the women’s restroom in the building where they worked. But to answer the question: no, I don’t think that scene was necessary.

ecr
Guest

A a white women reading this, I can only say that no one needs to throw me a “good” white person in order to interest me in a story about these extraordinary women.

I haven’t seen Hidden Figures yet. I appreciate the heads up ahead of time that that scene’s not accurate, because I might not have thought to question it by myself.

Cindy H.
Guest
I thought the movie was awesome and not because of that one scene. My fascination was with all of those intelligent black women. Had the movie been fictitious from the beginning I wouldn’t have a problem with it. But since it is non-fiction, it is a little bothersome. I’m sure that scene was not the only scene added that wasn’t true but the directors response of “There needs to be white people who do the right thing, there needs to be black people who do the right thing…and someone does the right thing. And so who cares who does the… Read more »
Mary Burrell
Guest

I loved the film so to me this business about adding a white savior is just insignificant. I am not going to nit pick.

Michele Carmichael
Guest

In my opinion, it changes my perception of Johnson. She came across as timid; running all the way across town just to use the bathroom. If she truly defied the rule then she may have been given the coffee pot to put her back in her place.

When I watched that scene in the movies, I didn’t find him heroic. The bathroom scene was more of a signal that change was coming.

Ricci
Guest

I read the book. I did not like the inclusion of that scene because absolutely nothing like that happened in “real life”. I wish they had shown what really happened which was Mary just using the whites only restroom. I also wish the director had included the real life incidents of Mary continually removing the “colored” sign in the lunchroom until finally it didn’t reappear. That actually happened and could have been played with some with, and theater was the black ladies giving themselves some dignity, not some white guy doing it for them.

Mostly Sane
Guest

Whether its Kevin Costner, his character in the film, or any Hollywood film in general, heroes should be celebrated for what they’ve actually done, not what they should have done. Case in point: a well-deserved Congratulations to the entire film and its cast, for becoming (domestically) the highest-grossing Best Picture Oscar nominee of 2017! $119Million+++

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[…] I reflect and considered an article I read, I had some additional […]

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[…] I came across an article on a Black Girl Long Hair, a Black founded news website I’m subscribed to, that criticized Melfi […]

Sharon
Guest
I saw the movie and loved it. I agree that it would have been amazing to see Johnson’s defiance of Colored bathroom visualized, but I don’t see adding a “white hero” as a bad thing. I think what the director did will allow white people today see that it’s okay to stick up for those that are different from them. I think we need that type of rebellion/defiance from people of all colors. I also believe that in putting it in a mainstream movie such as this puts it right in the laps of the moviegoers. Why can’t you stand… Read more »
Casey Grant
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. “Hidden History ” (black) is something we need to know any day . Please read my award winning book — Stars in the Sky — fighting for our civil rights in the Sky . Available on Amazon, Kindle, Barnes & Noble

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[…] It’s almost as if the publishing industry (which is a part of the “media“) want to keep the White Savior myth alive. For example, in the movie Hidden Figures, which tells the true story of three brilliant Black women who were the brains behind one of the greatest NASA operations in history, the director Theodore Melfi fabricated a scene for emotional effect that perpetuates the white savior myth perfectly. You can read more about it here. […]

Caroline
Guest
The movie was awesome and very overdue! I wish it only had true scenes though. Kevin Costner did a fine job in the movie, however his fictitious bathroom-sign scene was unnecessary. I agree with the others who have stated that only true scenes about the signs should have been included. A few months ago, NBC’s show “Timeless” had an episode mentioning Katherine’s importance at NASA. That was the first time I had ever heard of her and it’s a real shame that more people did not grow up knowing about her contributions. Although the show is fiction, it features historic… Read more »
Shannon Peacock
Guest

Katherine G. Johnson said the men of NASA didn’t treat her in a racist manner as depicted in the film. So if it makes you feel better, there may have been a fictional white savior, but there was a room full of fictional white devils.

William
Guest
I have to admit that while I I too got a bit of ‘white savior’ vibe when watching that scene, I think the entire context of it — in particular the delivery of the reason WHY the director was (albeit fictionally) motivated to finally make that leap to destroy the separation caused by racism is far more important. Johnson’s speech — about how the united states DESERVED to lose the race to the moon because it valued where someone could eat or even go to the bathroom — just because of something as stupid as skin color — MORE THAN… Read more »

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