This post was originally published in 2017.
On the way to the theater, we stopped at the gas station to stock up on M&Ms (a bag in every flavor except pretzel, because gross, and two bags of peanut butter, because delicious). As we got back on the road, I stealthily switched the radio over to the oldies station and crossed my fingers that the pop-music-obsessed nine-year-old in the backseat wouldn’t notice.
Of course, I blew that when I heard Michael Jackson and gave that nine-year-old a pop quiz, making sure she remembered the musical trivia I’d been drilling into her over the past few months. After going over the difference between the King of Pop and the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll one more time, we fell quiet. The song changed, and I heard the distinct piano stylings of Bruce Hornsby and the Range.
[Side note: That’s a lie. It WAS Bruce Hornsby and the Range, but I cannot for the life of me tell him apart from Steve Winwood unless it’s a song I know. But that is really not the point here.]
The point is that the song was, “The Way It Is.” And my daughter and I were on our way to see, Hidden Figures, a movie about three African-American women who worked at NASA in the early sixties.
The chorus of the song I heard goes like this:
That’s just the way it is
Some things will never change
That’s just the way it is
But don’t you believe them…
And more than one character in the movie we saw said, “That’s just the way things are,” more than once.
That phrase, no, that mindset is something I’ve heard frequently about many different situations. But I’ve certainly heard it more often over the past couple of years, about racial tensions and gender bias and political corruption and human nature. I’ve heard it . . . and I’ve said it. I know I’ve believed it. Even when I didn’t want to. Even when it tore at my too-tender heart to accept that “some things will never change.” But sometimes, after a while, it’s hard to believe otherwise. And recent days (and by that I mean the last few years both in our country and globally) have felt like one of those hard-to-hope times.
My big feelings and I aren’t unique. As each one of us learns more and hears more and is exposed to more, whether proactively through research and dialogue and education or passively through news exposure and media saturation, it is more evident now than ever that some of “the ways” this world is aren’t nearly as evolved as we once thought. As some of us once had the luxury of thinking.
Hidden Figures is a fantastic movie, by the way. Well-written, well-acted, just well-done all around. I actually want to watch it again. Not because I think I’ll understand the math of it all, but because it’s just so rich and so important, and I don’t want to miss a thing.
What struck me most about the movie, though, and what I’m still processing now, is how understated the whole thing was.
Don’t get me wrong! The movie was intense. After all, it was about the United States’ race to put a man in space (and if there’s one thing I’m most terrified of in this world it is being shot into outer space. Just…no thank you.). And the entire film is focused on the tension between races and genders, and the battles that black women had to fight to simply do their best work and fulfill their potentials.
But none of that was overplayed in this movie. None of the relationships or conflicts were written to be melodramatic. I can think of only one scene where a character significantly raised her voice in frustration to the inequality she faced every single day. Just one scene – and then the movie (and the characters) moved on.
What this even-keel approach said to me was that this – the inequality, the injustice, the unfairness of it all – was simply how things were. And they all knew that. But they didn’t let the story end there. Nobody is telling this story to complain or stir up further controversy; nobody is overreacting or rewriting history, nor could they be accused of that. Hidden Figures just tells the story of three women who overcame challenges in incredible ways.
And because of the small, steady voice telling this story, I believe my daughter and I walked away even more inspired than we might have been by an epic, emotional telling of the same situations. Because these were just three women living their lives, doing what needed to be done, and IT JUST SO HAPPENED that they accomplished groundbreaking things while they did it.
When we got home after the movie, my daughter had lots of questions. In an effort to help her understand the basics of white privilege and systemic racism, I shared the example of a classroom game where students are seated in rows and asked to make a basket in the trash can at the front of the room. Of course this is much easier for the students sitting up front, which illustrates in a simplistic way the challenge many minorities face as they figuratively sit in the back rows.
As I tucked her into bed, she asked me what I’d do if I were in that situation for real. I told her I wasn’t sure, but that I hoped I would start by noticing the unfairness and by speaking up about it. I hope I would say, “This isn’t fair. This isn’t right!”
I hope I would say, “No, this is NOT just the way it is. This is not the way it should be.”
My girl and I had so much more to discuss, and the thoughts I’ve had since watching the movie haven’t stopped swirling through my head since the lights came up in that theater. And I wrote more about my discussion with my daughter following the movie at MomAdvice.com (click over here to read it). But for now and, I hope, for always, the bottom line for me is that it’s NOT just the way it is and some things MUST change.
Have you seen Hidden Figures yet? What did you think?