Photo Credit Hopper Stone/20th Century Fox
Have you seen the movie Hidden Figures yet? If not, make sure to treat yourself to it soon. It’s an extremely enjoyable tale from a remarkable period in history when three brilliant young African American women helped NASA launch the country’s first space mission.
And please don’t be fooled in to thinking it’s a black movie, or a chick flick or a civil rights thing. Yes, the movie touches on all of this but its central focus was so much more and it really struck a chord deep inside me. Honestly, I’ve been unable to stop thinking about the movie since seeing it several days ago.
First, the undeniable star of the movie is math. If someone like me for whom high school algebra was akin to studying a foreign language was left agog by the movie’s portrayal of numbers and their importance to every day life, math fanatics will surely be duly impressed.
With the Cold war in full swing and the Civil Rights movement exploding in the background, 1950’s America was, needless to say, a bit tense. NASA was working frantically around the clock, trying to beat the Russians in launching a man in space for which crazily complex math equations for flight trajectories were needed. The slightest deviation from 100% accuracy meant disaster up in space and so the pressure was intense.
Enter the “computers” who were brought in to triple check the math. Mind you these were not the big mainframe IBM types that were just entering the market, but real live people called computers! The story follows three of them, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson played respectively and very well by Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe.
While the rest of the cast was solid, which included Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons and Mahershala Ali, it’s these three ladies carried the day. The acting was phenomenal, but what stirred my heart was how these characters reacted with grace and class to some very unjust situations.
The blunt racism of that era was portrayed not by sensationalist car bombings and riots, but through the daily humiliations suffered when doing the most common of things like finding a bathroom to use, checking out a library book or having a cup of coffee. It brought the vicious cruelty of it alive in a much more personal way that helped people like myself who were not around during that time to emotionally connect to the ugliness of racism.
It certainly had to have been difficult living as a black woman back then, but the movie never dwells on that. What struck me most actually was the anti victimhood mentality it promotes. It’s so opposite from what you normally see in narratives surrounding race and gender issues that you can’t help but notice.
This is exemplified during one very fun scene involving baking, whiskey and dancing when Katherine and Dorothy are consoling Mary who can’t enter the engineering program at NASA because the high school offering the advanced classes she needs to qualify doesn’t accept colored people. The message they give their friend was basically to stop complaining about the unfairness of it all and do something about it, which she does in a very kick ass way.
The bond between the women is pure and being introduced to their personal lives brings nostalgia for something long gone. A time when relationships were prized, where broken families were not the norm and where differences between the sexes were celebrated and believed to be complimentary to one another.
Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson were undeniably inspiring in their brilliance and tenaciousness. They put loyalty to country above justifiable rage to remain focused on the mission, which speaks to an inbred patriotism reflective across the USA at that time. Everyone was rooting for NASA and when John Glenn’s rocket finally launched in to the atmosphere, the entire country cheered!
It really happened that way you know, people of all races, and stations in life came together for the mission, for NASA and John Glenn, for America. It was heartwarming to watch in the movie, but sad too as I can’t fathom that happening in our divided country today.
Or maybe it can but not without a lot more, “loving your neighbor as you would yourself” and dropping the barriers erected to keep people who think differently at arms length. We are all human beings you know created by the same God and living in a country that offers the most unbelievable freedoms and creature comforts. Perhaps that would be a good starting point to rally around.
In the words of the real Katherine Johnson, “Go see Hidden Figures and take a young person! It will give a more positive outlook on what is possible if you work hard, do your best and are prepared.”
A more traditional review of the movie can be found here.
Go here for a fascinating interview with the real Katherine Johnson who is still kicking at 91 and was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2015.
And finally go here for a review of the movie written by Briana Lawrence which offers an interesting perspective.