Now that more black voices are being heard in Hollywood, I realize how badly one-sided history has been taught to American students. Thank God it’s changing.
In the last few years, films like “12 Years a Slave” and “Selma” have brought to life stories too long neglected, and “Hidden Figures” is a revelation. I grew up in the Apollo era; every rocket launch was a national event, with every American reaching for the stars. The turmoil in the streets notwithstanding, the space program provided a sense of optimism for the future. That was the era in which “Star Trek” was born, and through “Star Trek” some of that hope survives still.
Yet, in all that time, nobody told us about three black women who did as much as anyone else to make it happen. We did not know that a black woman helped to get John Glenn into orbit. (In Ron Howard’s otherwise excellent “Apollo 13,” we are never told about that same woman’s role in saving the flight.) Nobody told us about a black and largely female IT crew, or that NASA had a black female engineer. These are oversights corrected by “Hidden Figures.”
The film tells the story of Katherine G. Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughn, though Johnson, excellently portrayed by Taraji P. Henson, is the film’s main focus. She was a math prodigy who was graduated from college by age 18, and at work in the computing cellar at NASA. The film doesn’t flinch from the blatant racial discrimination of the era. The only bathroom reserved for black women, for instance, is half a mile from Katherine’s desk.
Each of the women faces a different struggle. Johnson wants credit for the work her white supervisor denies her; Vaughn has the duties and obligations of a department supervisor, but not the title or pay; and Jackson has go to court for the right to further her education. Each lives the classic American story of hard work and perseverance prevailing in the end. As it happens, in real life, it actually did. (Try to do that now.)
Vaughn’s story is almost as compelling as Johnson’s, but also funnier; there’s a reason Octavia Spencer is up for an Academy Award. NASA has purchased an early IBM mainframe, and nobody can make it work. Seeing an opportunity, Vaughn learns the FORTRAN computing language and sees right away what the white engineers have been doing wrong. Vaughn was one of the first to learn, I suspect, how to make yourself bulletproof in IT. I also have a personal reason for appreciating Spencer; she reminds me of every black female boss I’ve ever had.
Actually, there are three facets to “Hidden Figures” (and I wish Henson’s hadn’t been so well hidden): the civil rights aspect, the excitement and progress of the space program, and, at last, a film which doesn’t denigrate intelligent people. “Hidden Figures” is easily accessible by anyone, but does not portray having intelligence as a bad thing. Since most Hollywood films are aimed at the dumbest possible market, I can tell you that this alone makes “Hidden Figures” a welcome breath of fresh air.
I should mention Kevin Costner, who plays project head Al Harrison. Like all the other white people, he apparently has no problem with the way things are in 1961 Virginia, where Johnson isn’t even allowed to use the office coffee pot. His views begin to change after Katherine rips him over the bathroom issue. However, for some reason, Costner always has to go overboard when he sees the light. His film “Black and White”managed to be condescending to everybody, while making Costner the white knight. In “Hidden Figures,” though, rather than just issue a memo to desegregate the bathrooms as a real bureaucrat might do, Costner goes overboard with a sledgehammer to get his point across. It’s the one jarring note in an otherwise fine film.
“Hidden Figures” isn’t perfect, by any means. The plotting is fairly conventional, and the scenes of the women at home could fit into just about any movie. But those are cavils. There is a whole aspect of American history which has been overlooked for far too long, and “Hidden Figures” does a worthy job of making that right.
Tags: hidden figures, history, nasa