I must say, Hollywood’s trailers are getting better. Too often they give you most of the film in the trailer and my wife leans over to me in the theater and says, “now we don’t have to go see it!” But the trailer for “Hidden Figures” made me look forward to the film’s release, and then hope it would be worthy of its subject. I’ve been a fan of the space program since I was in elementary school. It led me to want to “be an astronaut when I grew up.” While 2016 was a spotty year for the film industry, they are starting 2017 with a couple of solid offerings that also bless the national culture.
Hidden Figures is a familiar version of Hollywood history portraying real people overcoming injustice to have a major impact on the country’s direction. As I watched the movie I kept thinking of my favorite film portraying the early days of the USA space program called “The Right Stuff”. It represented those days in America as a solely caucasian experience, with the exception of the delicious little scolding of Alan Shepard by an hispanic worker for his habit of imitating the famous Bill Dana impression of what an astronaut might be like if he were a Mexican immigrant. Other than that, the only bit of diversity was the portrayal of long-suffering wives putting up with chauvinist test pilots.
Hidden Figures tells the little-known story of three African-American women who were NASA’s “computers”. They solved the problems of projecting theoretical trajectories and flight paths for the Mercury Program. The three women were part of a group of African-American women who performed this critical task knowing that the building of a large IBM mainframe computer would soon make even those low-paid, menial tasks obsolete. The narrative is also focused on the roadblocks thrown in their way by existing Jim Crow restrictions that constituted the law at their workplace in 1961— NASA’s Langley Research Labs in Virginia. I also put this together, mentally, with the recent movie “Loving” which I have reviewed on this blog. Both take place in the 1950s and 1960s in Virginia.
Director and co-writer Ted Melfi’s pacing keeps us engaged and the dialogue hits all the proper questions to be asked without being overly melodramatic or preachy. This is important in order to keep the film’s message on the principles involved without creating an extreme atmosphere of “demons and victims.” A white supervisor, played with low-key believability by Kirstin Dunst, is an important sub-plot within the film. Her mental transformation matches that of many of the characters and is done with believability and finesse. In order for art to have the greatest impact on public thought, the characters in a film must have a believable change in their basis of thought, not one that simply reflects the authors views. It must be based on what we have already seen revealed in the nature of human character. No one likes going to a theater to be preached to. Film audiences want to be entertained and prevailed upon to think more constructively about our world by having been persuaded to a higher moral concept of man through the players’ reason and moral actions.
A strong example of this happened with one of the “well-meaning” white supervisors who is in charge of the colored computers. She has made clear that she won’t fight aspects of the system that is blocking advancement for anyone in the “colored” group. She tells their supervisor that she isn’t against the interests of the advancement of the group. She is told by one of our heroines, “yes ma’am, I sure you actually believe that.” Audience reaction at our showing demonstrated that this is still a popular perception of the failings of the “well-meaning” who continue to fail to put intentions into more courageous actions. When forced to acknowledge the superior talent of the colored group she makes amends by fixing the inequity and securing the proper advancement of all of the women in that section.
Films with an important contribution to make in the development of the nation’s culture and conscience about it’s past should be deliberate. They should keep the debate about attitudes, rather than simply putting forth stereotypes based on race, religion, or class. These stereotypes often are as limiting on the “heroes” in the story as the “villains.” This is key because people can’t change their skin color, but they can change they way they think about and treat other people.
This is an overall theme throughout the film: the changing of the perceptions of others. One of the women changes the thinking of a man who is courting her, and she changes her thought about him. Yes, racial stereotypes are attacked and progress is made in several little ways that each advance the idea that people are people, not groups. A key moment comes when a conflict based around the restrictions of “colored bathrooms” is triumphantly struck down by the senior supervisor of the facility, portrayed by Kevin Costner, who tells the employees around him that “here at NASA we all pee the same color.”
Finally, I also loved the fact that the film was not afraid to portray how much other values were important to these women. Its clear that marriage, family, and religion were important to the real figures portrayed in this film and I salute the filmmakers for not leaving out that source of high standards and principles when telling the story of their struggles. In a world where many say we are in a culture war, it’s nice to see a balanced portrait of American life in the 1960s presented on the screen.
I highly recommend Hidden Figures for families. It’s PG rated for a few bits of language and a few mild adult conversations. It’s going in my DVD collection when it comes out!