Just one view: Hidden Figures (2016)

This seemed to me to be a clever, hugely entertaining film. It clearly showed essentially two different societies, simultaneously, within one, under ‘one flag’. As shown when Costner’s character gives a pep talk to the office and asked for an ‘Amen!’, to be soon followed by an African-American church, when a pastor runs down more earthly problems, but also progress, for his ‘team’ of people.

As with many mainstream films dealing with such a time of segregation, there’s a balancing act that goes on: how much to show and how to show it. That the movie highlights a TV item about the ‘Freedom Riders’ being firebombed, then dragged out of their buses and beaten, was an argument against the idea that the film minimised Civil Rights outrages. However, for me, the rest of the movie’s portrayal of segregation as ‘every day’ was the film’s way of articulating that many of the other horrors were just ways of life for people back then, and that actually made them seem even more grotesque and shocking to my 2017 sensibilities. Less equaling more.

To (African-)American viewers, it’s just history and they would be more attuned to how that history gets, or should get, portrayed (see Dr. Marsha Adebayo’s piece in the always interesting Black Agenda Report) but to my European eyes, it was still jaw-dropping, even if one already knew the history: separate water fountains; bathrooms; schools; coffee pots; buses; even waiting in different groups in order to say hello to the astronauts. The matter-of-fact tone of the film actually underlined the obscenity, I thought.

Allied with this perspective, there’s the idea of a film made in 2016 about a time fifty-five years earlier that might be imposing a ‘white knight’ mentality, leading to characters conveying modern day ‘white guilt’ about these abominations, kind of like the fairy tale propagated in ‘Mississippi Burning’ (1988) wherein Hoover’s Feds (outrageously) become allies in the Civil Rights struggle. Yet, I got the impression that the film-makers were mindful of this pitfall and tried to body swerve it whenever possible.

Kevin Costner’s character actually could not save Katherine when the IBMs being up and running meant that she would go back to her previous department and, later, he only used her brilliance again when he was backed into a corner and when John Glenn insisted. It was Costner’s character who did take a crowbar to the segregated toilet facilities, that’s true, but why? Was it because he was disgusted by such a set-up? Perhaps but the primary reason was because he was being personally inconvenienced by Taraji P. Henson’s Katherine having to go across the complex every time she needed the bathroom. Similarly, when Janelle Monáe’s Mary wins the right from the judge to attend college classes, it comes across much less like an act of warm, white benevolence, more that the judge knows when he’s been outmaneuvered and outwitted. It all seemed more a case of a belated righteousness being found through convenience and self-interest rather than bravery and standing for what’s right.

Also, the turd-like character of Paul Stafford, brilliantly played by Jim Parsons from ‘The Big Bang Theory’, would, in a lesser film, have had some face-to-face acknowledgement of Katherine’s excellence but here he did not. Indeed, towards the end, while Katherine worked on some equations at the big board, he, with a momentary pause, walked out of the office without saying ‘goodnight!’ like a normal human being, while Katherine subsequently turned to register that he’d walked away.

The film did all of this civil rights commentary on the down low while also being interesting, entertaining, intelligent, warm. Katherine’s family. How many families, how many African-American families, in U.S. films come across and constantly loving and supportive? Often times, that family is the base for the initial disruption that allows a film, a drama, to play out but even when a film’s narrative is outside of the family home, one is almost conditioned to expert further conflict and drama within the home that underlines the battle facing the protagonist. Here, in this film, there was little manufactured dissonance: everyone was pulling in the same direction and how genuinely happy they all were when Mahershala Ali’s Jim Johnson came into their, and Katherine’s, lives.

On the level of building-block film-making, I’d love to see the first scene again (or the first scene after the initial flashback to Katherine as a small child). I haven’t watched the film for some weeks but, even at the time, it seemed to be a model of excellent script-writing and acting. The three ladies were all on their way into work in one car. The most practical character, Octavia Spencer, was driving (and later was the one under the car, giving the goose to the engine so they could all get to work.). Janelle Monáe’s independent-minded Mary had the back seat to herself and Taraji P. Henson’s Katherine was in-between, riding shotgun. In the space of very few lines, the film lays out the groundwork, all the stuff we the audience needed to know about them as differing characters but without sounding like Austin Powers’ Basil Exposition. It’s a hard trick to pull off. Then, as a passing police officer stops to give it some ‘Clifton James’ one gets more of the socio-political context delivered but in such a dexterous fashion.

As a side note, it’s always interesting to see how much weight that dramas and documentaries, about the space race, give to the U.S.S.R. As a westerner myself, I reflexively accept it all in terms of a race to the moon, one which the U.S.A. obviously won but, if one delves deeper, that was just about the only element of space exploration that was achieved firstly by the Americans. Every single other element, every other ‘first’ came from the U.S.S.R.

The Soviets had the first space stations and much of what they discovered is the bed rock upon which other space stations were built. Wikipedia gives a full rundown here and look out for an excellent B.B.C. documentary called ‘Cosmonauts: How Russia Won The Space Race’. In the early 1970s, for example, there was TV coverage of three cosmonauts entertaining the Soviet public with various zero gravity tricks and zaniness from their proto-space station. The documentary then shows their heart-breaking return. A fault in the craft left them asphyxiated: one sees actual film of them lying on the ground while medics tried, in vain, to revive them.

Anyway, ‘Hidden Figures’ came across to me as a most enjoyable, inspiring piece of work; thoroughly deserving its attention and success, I thought. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale were still five years away from forming the Black Panthers when this movie takes place. To my eyes, it wouldn’t have serviced the film’s verisimilitude to paint on some raised fist-style resistance. The characters’ resistance to this era’s grotesqueries came in differing, but no less hardened, forms.

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