Sunday, February 12, 2017

Hidden Figures


It was funny at first, a woman in midsized heels running to another building just to pee. Then it became depressing as she still had to relieve herself in another building even under heavy rain. Eventually it was just idiotic because even in a great emergency Katherine Goble (Katherine Johnson when she married) would still be in the other building because she is black.

This is 1960s segregated America and even the National Aeronautics and Space Administration(NASA) is no exemption, space race notwithstanding. 

Hidden Figures is about three African American women breaking color barriers at NASA during the space race: Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer).  Katherine running is the best shot in the movie much more than Katherine holding chalk on the board doing math.

Dorothy is the leader of the three because she the acting supervisor of the colored group of computers.  A computer in this context is a job title because it required a heavy dose of math.  Mary Jackson in the movie, though with a math major herself, is the more practically inclined having been assigned to the Mercury 7 capsule which still has not been designed good enough to get back to earth in one piece.  Katherine worked on, among others, the trajectories of the rockets that went to and the capsules that came back from space.

Besides the obvious allusions to math, the protagonists were hidden figures because as colored women they were housed in another building. It is for the same reason that even at work time, when colored need to mix with white, the colored were never really seen.

Katherine is supposed to be the focal point.  The movie did start with her a young girl full of potential that her teachers donated money just so she gets advancement, from 6th to 8th grade in another negro school.  Later on it was Katherine with crucial computations needed for highlight, John Glenn’s orbital flight

Between the start and end, however, the emotional tone gets dispersed. 

Math prodigy becomes three black women in a segregated workplace, and this is just following Katherine’s grade school scene at the very beginning.  Math itself occasionally gives way to issues of race and equality. Segregated workplace occasionally gets added over the civil rights movement.  Katherine’s work problems every so often get a romantic respite – from awkward first meeting with Jim Johnson to marriage proposal. Anybody remember the space race?

Considering the theme of three historical women at NASA, of the search for true equality in the midst of a space race; my choice is that Katherine’s love life with Jim should not have been shown in its full course at least on camera. From math genius to segregation to space race, romance was just too much of a stray. Take romance out and what remains – math, segregation, space race – will still have been a difficult mix but a more consistent one for segregation. The balance of release of tension to distraction has already tipped over for the latter.

Dorothy and Mary could have provided enough tension release; in fact they did, in the second scene immediately after the grade school scene. That was also the introductory scene for Dorothy and Mary, and their relationship with Katherine. In that scene when they had to talk their way out of a white policeman in segregated America, Mary did most of the talking at the same time restraining her own self. Dorothy fixed the car, establishing at least a mechanical background more than any woman. They got out of the situation with the two doing most of the legwork but all three of them having a moment to smile.

Most of us work in an office I assume, which is why I expected the three to help each other in times of trouble. I expected them to gossip, be a shoulder to cry on, be that point of levity; but instead the two had enough weight to go off individually with their own arcs.  

Sure they had scenes together sharing office troubles but were undeveloped as three friends trying to survive a segregated office. They just couldn’t over power Jim Johnson. Every time Jim’s scenes come in it felt like a shout: MEANWHILE in Katherine’s lovelife.

Dorothy overpowers Katherine’s scenes especially if seen through the eyes of civil rights.  She leads the colored group, gives out assignments.  What made her character so great is the foresight with which she modernized the colored computers to learn how to program an IBM computer. The movie’s epilogue says that Dorothy became NASA’s first African American Supervisor.

Mary Jackson’s storyline strayed out of NASA’s compound.  Her fight to get into an all white school for classes that will eventually become an engineering degree left a hole big enough for another movie. She became NASA’s first female African American engineer.

Ironically it is a white man that saved this movie from flying off in all different directions and also from another white man, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons).  Though he was supposed to be giving Katherine a hard time he was just too Big Bang Theory.  The white man who saved it all was Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Costner had the gravitas to bring it all into focus.

When he and Katherine first met he said to look beyond the numbers. Al had a mathematical point, but saying it to a black woman could also work as to look beyond the skin. Segregation and space race. The confrontation between Al and Katherine dripping wet from peeing in the other building. This was the changing of the tide, an emotional scene. Segregation and space race. And then there was Al handing over chalk to Katherine, just like in grade school when she bested older classmates, now she bested or more accurately seen by white men. She has her validation.

Hidden Figures’ climax came from the Apollo 13 playbook and it didn’t make as much success because this isn’t John Glenn’s movie. I can see how difficult it is to make a climax unique to the characters.  

Just get to the epilogue and get your emotional high. Three women won over segregation and a nation the reached.  It’s not sexy because the message of equality, of being fare to your fellow man, needs to be worked on by everyone every single day.  And it doesn’t stop now.