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.”