At the mention of Neil Armstrong’s historic lunar landing, we think of his words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” We think of Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins’s perilous journey leading to that moment in 1969, fueled by their relentless desire to discover the unknown. But few likely think of the Americans who questioned whether NASA’s space program was worth the trouble, and the cost.
The movie “First Man,” released Friday, aims to change that.
“I was very, very compelled from the start by this idea of pulling the veneer off what’s been, I think, a pretty sugarcoated story,” said Josh Singer, who wrote the screenplay for the Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”) movie, a rather somber take on Armstrong’s life and career in the 1960s.
Chazelle and Singer executed the idea by depicting both the perseverance of those in the space program and the passionate feelings of those opposed to its cost. A memorable scene captures this dissonance by juxtaposing the Apollo 1 disaster, in which a fire killed three astronauts during preflight testing, with people protesting NASA’s program — all set to a rousing reading of musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron’s work “Whitey on the Moon.”
“A rat done bit my sister Nell, with whitey on the moon,” Leon Bridges, who plays Scott-Heron, recites over a drum beat. “Her face and arms begin to swell, and whitey’s on the moon. I can’t pay no doctor bills, but whitey’s on the moon. Ten years from now I’ll be payin' still, while whitey’s on the moon.” (Click here to read the full poem.)
Whether Scott-Heron actually performed the poem at a protest — he included a recording of it on his debut album, “Small Talk at 125th and Lenox,” which was released the year after the moon landing — its impact is undeniable. The poet, then in his early 20s, scorned NASA for using his tax dollars to fund “whitey’s” trip to the moon while he and his family lived in poverty. The government did little to help its black citizens, he implied, raising a question that to this day often takes a back seat to the space race’s romanticized narrative: Whom did the expensive journeys actually benefit?
“Despite all these problems, we’re supposed to celebrate this achievement that has nothing to do with the lives of real Americans,” Marcus Baram, author of the biography “Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man,” said of the poet’s mind-set. “It was a tumultuous time — the war, people dying overseas. And all of a sudden, you have this random event where tens of millions of dollars [are] used to send this guy to the moon.”
Roger Launius, former chief historian at NASA, wrote in a 2003 paper that many Americans felt the same as Scott-Heron: “Consistently throughout the 1960s a majority of Americans did not believe Apollo was worth the cost, with the one exception to this a poll taken at the time of the Apollo 11 lunar landing in July 1969. And consistently throughout the decade 45-60 percent of Americans believed that the government was spending too much on space.”
“Whitey on the Moon” highlighted the existence of “two Americas.” Born in Chicago and partially raised in Jackson, Tenn., Scott-Heron moved to New York City at 12 and was one of a handful of black students at his high school. He was well aware of his skin color throughout his youth, according to Baram, and in the late 1960s attended the historically black college Lincoln University in Pennsylvania because Langston Hughes had gone there.
Scott-Heron’s career blossomed thereafter, and he began producing music and poetry that would eventually lead to him being deemed the “godfather of rap.” He wrote “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” his most famous work, and one that continues to feel relevant, in 1968.
This is the man whose work needed to be heard in “First Man,” according to Singer, who fully credits Chazelle with the idea of incorporating “Whitey on the Moon” into the film. The first draft of the script had back-to-back audio bits of commentary about the Vietnam War and the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in the same scene, Singer said, and the second draft only had Bridges performing “Whitey on the Moon.”
But neither draft seemed quite right. They ended up moving the audio bits elsewhere — there’s some discussion of the war playing while Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy, who plays the wife of Ryan Gosling’s Neil) does laundry — and landed on the Apollo 1 disaster/“Whitey on the Moon” juxtaposition instead.
“The struggle with this is, how do you make history evocative? How do you make history speak to a contemporary generation?” Singer said. “Damien’s instinct to go to the Gil Scott-Heron moment was really smart. . . . It really conveys in a visceral way, what the issue is.”