“Between you and me, what’s the difference?”
The definitive exchange in Hidden Figures—the one that defines America then and still today—is when Kirsten Dunst‘s personnel manager tells Octavia Spencer‘s yet-to-be-given-the-title supervisor, “Despite what you may think, I have nothing against y’all.” Spencer’s Dorothy Vaughan counters without missing a beat, “I know you probably believe that.” It’s such a perfect distillation of how racism permeates the very core of who we are to the point where we don’t even understand why we are racist. It happens all the time now, white people accusing black people of screaming racism as a knee-jerk reaction because they believe their racist actions are normal. Their fear has made it so other colors are inferior, dangerous, and untrustworthy. In their minds they aren’t racist. They’re practical.
Just look at the state of affairs today with the Muslim ban and how half our nation is willing to put color and religion above humanity. But they don’t believe they’re being racist because they’re doing it under the auspices of security. They’re “looking out for their own” without realizing “their own” has warped from Americans and people in general into Americans who specifically look and live like them. As Hidden Figures shows, this isn’t a new concept. And as Selim Azzazi‘s short film Ennemis intérieurs [Enemies Within] corroborates, it isn’t solely an American reaction. Every nation has a history wherein populations have been usurped, integrated, or evolved. Every nation has seen prejudice—whether warranted or not—and inevitably forgave itself under the umbrella of national pride.
This is the crossroads where we meet an Algerian seeking French citizenship (Hassam Ghancy) opposite a French interrogator of Arab descent (Najib Oudghiri). Both were technically born Frenchmen (Algeria was under France’s rule at the time of Ghancy’s birth), but politics and war have made things more complicated. The interview advances swimmingly at first with everyone cordial and forthcoming until religion is brought up. Ghancy suddenly tenses and Oudghiri leans in with confidence and control. Words are twisted and assumed, the interrogation moving from citizenship to suspected terrorism. “Just give us a few names and we’ll give you a positive review,” says Oudghiri. Show us that we can trust you as an informer—not as an equal, but an object for us to wield.
Oudghiri effortlessly chastises Ghancy for falling back on notions of racial profiling as though he is the one at fault. You may even believe it—that he does have something to hide. Azzazi expertly allows the story to unfold in a way where our entrenched ideas of good versus evil kick in before we’re aware of all the facts. We take authority (Oudghiri) at its word and ostensibly hold the suspect (Ghancy) as guilty until proven innocent. Only then do we discover why Ghancy was guilty, why he has a criminal record and why he won’t name names. It’s a rousing reversal, his conviction inspiring to behold. But as in life, so goes fiction. It doesn’t matter that Ghancy is justified or right because he remains the “other.”
We’re given two men who look the same, speak the same, and live the same. The only difference is that one is on the “right” side of the desk and the other on the “wrong.” This dichotomy is why someone like Trump can deliver out-right lies and not be crucified by supporters. This is how labels and titles become more important than ideals and hope. A world becomes educated by a lie and eventually makes that lie true. It doesn’t matter that an Algerian in France meets other Algerians for a sense of belonging the French won’t supply. Algerians meeting automatically connotes terrorist cell. Fear is now our driving force, our abhorrent actions towards the “other” sanctioned by those in power. Will our eyes ever be opened?