Tuesday, February 7, 2017

“Hidden Figures” – Lifting Us Toward a Greater America

Hidden Figures is exactly what we need right now (especially during Black History Month) -- a comfort film. In an era when a promise to “make America great again” has led to brutally divisive rhetoric on many sides, it’s cheering to see a movie that celebrates the coming together of all sorts of people in pursuit of a grand goal: putting Americans into space. This true story of three black female NASA employees, gifted in mathematics and what we today call STEM, is a heartening reminder that when we’re able to look past ethnic, gender, and religious differences, not even the sky’s the limit.

In Hidden Figures the cast of characters is (as a scientist might put it) binary. In and around Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia circa 1960, you were either white or black, either male or female. Brief screen-time is given to a thickly-accented Jewish survivor of  the Holocaust who now is working overtime to put astronauts aloft via the Mercury program. But among the space scientists, and also among the crowds gathered to watch and cheer, there seems to be no such thing as a Latino, a Middle Easterner or an Asian. Probably this reflects the reality of Virginia in that era, essentially the same one glimpsed in the equally excellent film Loving, which focused on the Supreme Court decision that overturned state bans on interracial marriage. In any case, Hidden Figures fundamentally belongs to three black actresses--Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe—who are so vibrant and appealing that it’s no wonder this film received the prestigious SAG award for its ensemble cast. (Mahershahla Ali, an Oscar favorite as the sympathetic drug dealer in Moonlight, here switches gears to play a straight-arrow love interest.)

Each of the three women at the center of Hidden Figures has impressive intellectual gifts. They are all ready, willing, and able to provide key technical support for a fledgling U.S. program that is desperate to overcome the Soviet Union’s head-start in space. But because of the color of their skin the three are relegated to a separate unit in a separate building. It is only when the NASA chiefs become desperate (in a pre-computer age) for expert mathematical help on the first Mercury launch that Katharine Goble (Henson) is ushered into the all-white, all-male domain over which Kevin Costner presides. Still, despite her elevation, she faces constant bias, dramatized by the head engineer’s refusal to allow her name on key reports and especially by her daily races to a distant “colored” bathroom when nature calls.

The bathroom issue, of course, reflects the Southern segregation policies of the time. But in many ways, all women were at a marked disadvantage at Langley (and probably throughout NASA)  in this era. They were valued as support staff, but were traditionally barred from strategic briefings and kept far from the inner workings of the space program. Women back then were assumed to be wives and mothers, waiting at home for their hard-working spouses. Those who snagged NASA jobs were herded together in their own divisions, and had to adhere to strict codes: modest dresses of a certain length, high heels, no jewelry other than a wedding ring and a modest strand of pearls. (Essentially, they were dressed not for long hours of work but for a tea party.) The supervisor character played by Kirsten Dunst hints at what happens when a smart woman is undervalued: she makes life miserable for those even further down the chain of command.      

But it’s the black trio you’ll remember: women who prove there’s no color bar in space.

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