Hidden Figures (2016) – slice

In the end, they are looking at–and trying to solve–the same problem.

Theodore Melfi’s film about three trailblazers in NASA is expectedly conventional. It has beginning, rising tension, emotional chords and ending almost exactly as you would expect from a film like this. It starts within the system and stays in the system. And it still is satisfying.

Some may attribute this cinematic satisfaction to the subject itself; the underdog coming to dominate, or the underprivileged blasting off to success (pun intended) in the sea instituional prejudices, are all too familiar sujects of a good Hollywood drama film. Hollywood, from the start, may have been a deeply racist system, but one cannot deny that it is also a system that knows how to make sure a subject like this to be, well, satisfactory. The tools are beyond doubt effective.

It has all the failures that radicals will point out: has a white male boss that solves the big problem, has an all-American white guy who happens to be really nice regardless of what skin colour his conversation partner has, not really focusing the problem on wide scope, etc, and that’s one way of looking at the film.

What impresses me the most the films acknowledgement of the institutional side of the problem. There are racists/sexists in the film, yes. However, you very rarely see open and intentional hatred against blacks or women. Most of people do what they do not because they are openly racists/sexists and have a willful resentment towards these groups, but because of the deep entrenched ideology they themselves may participate but did not create, therefore stays ignorant about.

The subject of this film then is so befitting. It’s about women achieving something for the first time in their society to help the society achieve something for the first time. The film emphasises on the idea of “first” as an all-American concept. First space travel, first black woman to be an engineer, first judge to allow that black woman to be an engineer for the first time so that the first orbital space travel can end in success, and the list goes on and on. Even the main dramatic dilemma strikes when America is not first. The film simpifies the bipolar political order of Cold War into a race with two contestants, where “difference” only denotes being behind.

It is an effective setup in this context because it ultimately incorporates that concept into the idea of fighting institutional racism and sexism. It focuses on the idea of “first” rather than “change”–by doing so, the film argues the destined course of history, that this is bound to happen. Just as America should be “first” in space race because that is the destined course of history, the eradication of racism and sexism is something that will happen as a part of natural progress. It will not mean a “change” in direction, but a step forward. The question is then, who will be the first to do so.

It is an interesting paradox: prejudices are institutionally-rooted, but it is also institutionally destined those prejedices be eradicated. The film understands that the problems of racism and sexism can only be fixed by acknowledging the institutional entrenchment of those ideals, but it also recognizes that the institution functions better in achieving its manifest destiny by eradicating those institutional problems within itself. Therefore, one may argue the film precisely highlights the importance of internal reform within the institution, instead of a change forced by an external pressure. There is only one direction an institution can progress: being better by being “first,” and not changing to something entirely different.

And this attitude on the problem shifts the perspective of the issue quite effectively. The problem is not really about explicit racism; it’s about implicit racism that is normalized, and how that affects the marginalized. Take the bathroom problem the film shows repeatedly: it means a lot to Katherine, having to run basically a mile in heels just to get to a bathroom. And once changed, it does not mean a lot of difference to those who were initially privileged, but it does to people who weren’t. If anything, it opens up new doors for both the previously underprivileged and the originally privileged (Kirsten Dunst’s character saves her white female computers from being let go from their job by reconciling with her African American colleague–in now-desegregated bathroom).

After the change, really, the life doesn’t change much for white people in the film. The most racist “villain” of the film comes to naturally accept his African American colleague. To him, it’s not really how he becomes suddenly anti-racist, aware of his wrongdoings and feels guilty about them–instead, he just adjusts the new normal, which really just feels like a natural progression of his institution, just like the introduction of IBM. For America and NASA, their chief enemy remains the Russians. America is America, and really, America without racism/sexism is just a more effective America; it is not new America, at least in the eyes of initially privileged.

I think that’s one of the chief reasons it works in this specific context, because the film understands that bringing about institutional change can really mean no change at all to people who are not affected by it. Sticking to conventional Hollywood system to expose systematic problems, ironically, works, because of this. While it will surely give audiences who are women of colour a reason to be proud of their identity, but in the end, I don’t think this is a film for them; instead, it’s a film for normal Americans who are not affected by everyday institutional prejudices–telling them, “no, the world is not going to end if we change it, in fact, it will barely change for you.” Radicals will argue that is not enough–and in some areas, they are absolutely right–but then again, it’s a film about a part of human history where the most memorable moment is signified with “one, small step.”


The Americans: an immigrant story

The Americans, a show about Russians wearing (a lot of) wigs.

The recent debacle surrounding Trump administration and its suspicious Russian connection has been the story for few weeks in American media, and The Americans, FX’s series of Russian couple posing as the Russian sleeper agents in Reagan’s America, understandably finds itself in a very strange position: a show that was supposed to be a nostalgic throwback to 80s feels dangerously current for the viewers and creators alike. Critics have found some parallels between the show and the current America, but mostly in the opposite way: Soviets were bogged down in a nightmarish war in Middle East that was destroying their economy, something that many Americans of 21st century can certainly understand. But now the parallels aren’t really about “the other way around,” and basically every single critic that reviewed Season 5 has brought it up in some way or the other.

The show however draws parallel in less political way to Trump administration, or even, the general idea of American ideal regardless of era, which I believe is being ignored more or less with the elephant in the room getting all the attention. The Americans has been called a lot of things before being a spy thriller, from metaphoric representation of marriage to a contemplation on the idea of faith and beliefs, but from the start, the show has been one of the most unique and penetrating immigrant story on TV.

Ever since the show’s first debut in 2013, there has been a shift in TV industry to at least try to put a spotlight on minority groups: Transparent comes to mind first, and Fresh off the Boat is another great example of an immigrant story. The Americans however does not have a synopsis that is directly related to those themes of identity and identity politics, but instead, the show allows these themes to play a subtle role that become more and more prominent as it progresses.

The Americans may be about secret Russian sleeper agents trying to destroy America from within by posing as Americans, but that also means that the two anti-heroes of the show, Phillip and Elizabeth (inerestngly named after the current British Royal couple), are immigrants. Their motives behind the immigration may be different from other usual immigrants, but they make their living in the country, they live American lives with American friends and children who consider thmselves Americans. This discrepancy between their original identity and the newfound identity is one of the basic cornerstones of any good immigrant story; the show just twists them make them irresistibly interesting while revealing new perspectives not explored in other works.

The interesting ethnic dynamics are in full-swing in a lot of small episodes throughout the series. One of the earlier missions in the series introduce an African American communist whom the couple recruited in 60s Civil Rights Movement. Having never been to Russia, this character regardless believes it is a better society than America that still perpetrates racist institutions upon its minority populace. This character incidently is called to help the main couple track a hispanic woman–who turned out to be the secret wife of one of their late colleagues, who was a Russian-posing-as-American just like them.

This early setup, which lasts an episode very early in the series, lays bare the American myth of Cold War: us and them was never just us and them. The battle of ideologies was not just about ideologies, but also identities. This is not only the American myth, but also the Russian myth as well; later in the series, the show spends considerable time in detailing the unfortunate life of a Russian Jew–a refusenik–forced to detach himself from his identity and work for the oppressive Soviet government, which Americans attempt to exploit. On the other hand, Russians are more than willing to fight against South African apartheid, with the main couple allying themselves with an ANC freedom fighter who does not hesitate to necklace a South African operative that was trying to sabotage anti-apartheid groups in American colleges.

The cultural myth of Cold War puts the era as one of extreme binary: in political science, Cold War represents the most striking example of a bipolar system. The Americans, while fully aware of that political binary, individualises the era based on people, their identity, their beliefs, and how the multilayered and multifaceted interaction between all of them affect their struggle to survive the extreme circumstances that a lot of these characters find themselves in. Whereas shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones pits the characters against each other in a very noticeable fashion, usually based on greed or survival, The Americans is a slow descent to suicidal madness–one that is motivated by their dogmatic ideologies and conflicting identities. Game of Thrones gets messy when people die; in The Americans, death of a prominent character sometimes bring a sigh of relief, and it leaves the messiness to people who are left behind.

This perpetual cycle of madness makes transparent the tragic comedy of Cold War, or any ideology-driven conflict, for all to see. Many immigrant stories are about survival stories or success stories–The Americans, on the other hand, shows an immigrant story that us immigrants have refused to acknowledge for so long. The cultural, social and ideological crises are given a whole new layer with identity struggle, and reveals how dehumanising experience it is to find one’s own humanity in a life of paradoxes.

Deep down, a lot of immigrants understand the immigrant experience of other immigrants who are from completely different background. The culture may be different, but the internal struggle is almost always similar.

In season 4 of the show, Elizabeth, the hardline of the two main characters, befriend a Korean American named Young-hee, who is the wife of the man the couple needs to approach to gain a crucial intellience regarding American bioweapons that may or may not threaten Soviet Union. It’s not just how well the show describes the Korean immigrant family and their life that impresses me (though it certainly is very much spot-on). This season-long spy work leaves no dead bodies, but nonetheless provides one of the most soul-crushing experience in recent televison, with Elizabeth having an affair with the husband and faking her pregnancy and ultimaetly suicide, which leaves the Korean American family in ruins.

Elizabeth, usually the stern supporter of Communism and any method that is required to bring its glory, finds herself in emotional agony as she will never see her friend, whose family she has effectively destroyed. While she may be posing as a typical American, she herself is also an immigrant, and the friendship with another immigrant reminds herself when she was in her shoes. This identification between immigrants plays an important role in revealing a very different side of Elizabeth–no matter how much she trained to be the perfect American wife, she is still a Russian in America. It is not surprising that Elizabeth cooks Korean stew at home for one evening, something she would never do with any other job since that would be bringing the job back home. Despite being a Russian, Elizabeth sympathesises with a Korean, one of the most anti-communist people, because they share the pan-immigrant identity.

Season 5 only seems to pick up from the previous season in telling its unique immigrant dynamic. The season starts with a a scene that most immigrant can sympathesise: an Asiant immigrant boy fluent in English approaching a Russian immigrant who can barely speak a single word of English. Of course, this is another instance of elaborate spycraft at work: now posing as foster parents for the teenage Vietnamese boy (who is also a spy), they befriend a Russian family that has recently escaped Soviet Union. The father is understandably unhappy with the USSR, his son never wanted to leave his country, and the mother is busy trying to find the middle ground. Phillip and Elizabeth, along with their “son,” shares hatred of the father–how can he hate his own homeland? To Philip and Elizabeth, the post-war generation that was trying to survive with nothing and still went on to serve their country, the father’s complete denial of his own identity is bewildering, but also hits them where they feel most vulnerable. Their conflicted identity, an internal struggle that was building to a boiling point for last 4 seasons, has been covered up by their committment to the Cause, the ideology–and yet, they see a man without an ideology, unaffected by the same dilemma they find themselves in. To them, this man presents a dangerous alternative, one they may want but cannot bring themselves to be.

In that sense, The Americans truly is a timely show for Americans. To non-immigrants, it’s a show about perfect Americans who are also immigrants; to immigrants, it’s a show about immigrants who are also perfect Americans. It is an immigrant story that modern-day America not only needs, but deserves.