It dawned on me during the end credits of Hidden Figures.
On a high from watching the inspirational tale of three African American women helping get the United States into space, I spotted the adapted screenwriting credit: “Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder.”
I turned to my friend sitting next to me. “Of course I liked this movie,” I said. “This screenplay had to have a woman behind it.” Melfi and Schroeder, of course, adapted the screenplay from the nonfiction book by the same title, written by Margot Lee Shetterly.
The Hidden Figures script understands female friendship, 1960s African American hardship in society and the workplace, and the things we take for granted today. It also understands the importance of the bathroom in female culture.
One of the most frustrating threads throughout the film is that Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) has to haul herself across the NASA campus, nearly a mile round trip, just to use the “Colored” women’s restroom. When she’s caught in a rainstorm on her way back from the bathroom and is admonished by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) for being late, she unleashes her rage in a justified, beautiful rant. All she wants to do is to be able to do her job to the best of her ability and be treated equally, and because she’s a black woman in a white male-dominated workplace, she has two strikes against her.
This thread in the film works on a variety of levels, mainly highlighting how stupid separate bathrooms were based on the color of your skin. And secondly, it reflects female anxiety of simply going to the bathroom. It’s different for women than for men. For one thing, women have to sit down (unless there’s a rock star out there who’s figured out how to pee standing – I want to meet her!), and secondly once a month, whether in school or at the office, you have to take a purse with you to the bathroom with your womanly essentials, unofficially declaring to the world that Aunt Flo is visiting.
The bathroom issue wouldn’t be the same for men. If this film was about a black man having to run across campus to use a “Colored” restroom, the idea of separate bathrooms would still be ridiculous, but for women, the issue carries so much more import.
While the script isn’t without slippage (like the underdeveloped romance subplot with Masherala Ali), I was pleasantly surprised by Hidden Figures, as well as the female writing credit, because I had been frustrated at the movies this year, especially with portrayal of some of the most notable female characters of the year, which were written by men.
With the character of Mia (Emma Stone) in La La Land, writer/director Damien Chazelle is clearly pulling a page from the Manic Pixie Dream Girl handbook. Our leading lady is a movie buff who’s never seen Rebel Without a Cause, gives up on her dream until her boyfriend tells her not to, and becomes a Hollywood diva who betrays authenticity even though she breaks up with said boyfriend over it. And most disturbing of all, other than her first initial audition scene, we as an audience never really see whether she has any talent, as the film refuses to show us anything from her one-woman show So Long, Boulder City.
Mia never makes complete sense as a character (why don’t we see more about her aunt who inspired her?), and of all the characters in the film, she is the least realized (and she’s the lead!). Chazelle glosses over creating Mia as a full-fledged character, like he’s in a rush to get to the beautiful, albeit undeserved, payoff.
The same can be said about Florence Foster Jenkins, written by Nicholas Martin and based on the true story of “the worst singer in the world.” It’s a rush to get to the end. For those thinking this film would be a whimsical comedy in the same vein as Julie & Julia, think twice, as this “comedy” has some seriously dark themes. Florence (Meryl Stree) gets syphilis from her first husband, and lives happily with her second husband Bayfield (Hugh Grant) in separate quarters, with him exercising his sexual desires with a mistress (Rebecca Ferguson). Throughout the whole film, Florence has one goal and one goal only: to perform as an opera singer. And Bayfield and her rich friends will stop at nothing to make sure she never gets ridiculed for her poor singing abilities, even going so far as to snatch up every copy of The New York Post in a five-block radius to avoid her seeing a bad review. (Read this out loud and swap “Florence” for “Trump” and think about it for a second.)
Florence is a highly unlikable character, and in the real world, would be viewed as a villainess for using her white privilege and money to her advantage. But the script never explores these implications, which would make for a more fully developed character. What could be a Chicago-esque musical comedy about a woman behaving badly (after all, the original play Chicago was written by a woman – Maurine Dallas Watkins) ends up being swept under the rug, with the easy out that moviegoers will find the worst singer in the world endearing because she’s being played by the greatest actress in the world. Florence spends the whole movie pushing dollar after dollar into her unnecessary opera career and perishes because, gasp, she receives a bad review! Give her a scene where she tells off Bayfield, or some sort of indication that his forced infidelity bothers her, because most, if not all, women would feel paralyzed by the idea of not being able to have sex with their husband.
Not to say that there are no male screenwriters that can write women well. I would argue that Eric Heisserer’s script for Arrival captures maternal, female spirit with exceptional awareness and in a way I’ve never seen in a film. August Wilson’s screenplay for Fences not only evokes the black struggle in the 1960s, but it also captures the quieter struggle of black women, who had even fewer options. Rose (played by Viola Davis) is an incredibly strong female character for being able to raise her husband’s out-of-wedlock lovechild and maintain optimism in the face of crippling adversity.
But we need more female screenwriters now more than ever. There’s a reason why #OscarsSoMale has been trending, and it’s because while women are often the leads in top-grossing films (see Rogue One, Bad Moms, Suicide Squad, Moana), real-life women are rarely involved in the drafting of these scripts, which is why instead of Harley Quinn being a kick-ass female villain, she’s reduced to a fuckbunny with boyfriend issues.
And with women of color headlining more movies, there’s an even greater need for women of color screenwriters. Suzanne de Passe is the only black woman to ever be nominated for Best Original Screenplay for Lady Sings the Blues and no black woman has ever been nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay (!!!). Other women of color have been snubbed for Academy Award nominations, too, including Kate Lanier for What’s Love Got To Do With It? in 1993 and Amy Tan, who co-adapted her book The Joy Luck Club for the big screen, also in 1993. Although to be fair, a woman did win Best Original Screenplay that year: Jane Campion for The Piano (you know, the story of a woman who doesn’t speak, which is exactly what the Academy wants!). But couldn’t Lanier or Tan have replaced Gary Ross for Dave, the Kevin Kline-plays-look-alike-presidents comedy, which was also nominated in that category? C’mon.
With young screenwriters like Issa Rae, Mindy Kaling, and Lena Dunham inspiring young women with ideas and a pen and paper, there’s hope that more women will be represented in these categories soon. But sadly, until then, the year 2007, when three women were nominated in the Best Original Screenplay category, feels so far away, like a half-mile trek across campus.