Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jan 19, 2017 11:11 pm 
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A heartening but shocking slice of American history

Hidden Figures is a movie set in 1961 telling the story of three black women who worked at NASA in Virginia in 1961. This was the time of the Space Race. America was horrified, even terrified, that the Russians had an observer satellite orbiting the earth, and even more horrified when the USSR sent a man, Yuri Gagarin, into space. The rush was on to send the first American man to fly in space (John Glenn). It was full speed ahead into space. And yet, here in America, at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, things were backward. The three ladies, each of whom is brilliant, still face segregation and humiliation. This is the story of how they gained recognition and better treatment.

In the foreground is Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), a genius we see sent as a tyke to a school for the gifted and black. She is permitted to go to the building for the engineers, under the wing of the boss of it all, Al Henson (Kevin Costner, comfortable in the role of a stolid but decent man). It's a half mile's walk, or rather jog, back and forth because at the main section, there is no "colored restroom." Next focus is on Dorothy Vaughan, played by the redoubtable Olivia Spencer, who is in charge of the "Colored Calculators," but has a long struggle to be given the title of Supervisor. Eventually she gets it, and now, a building at NASA is named after her.

Katherine survives all the indignities to become the one person whose numbers Astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) trusts before his Friendship 7 launch. (He's no dummy.) He's shown saying "Get the girl to run the numbers, if she says they’re good, they’re good to go."

Another change is coming, besides achieving John Glenn's first ride in space. The calculators are in the process of being replaced by the big IBM computer. Dorothy Vaughan cottons to this, and studies up on Fortran - she must steal the book from the library because it's not in the "colored section" - and begins figuring out how to program the IBM with cards, and preps the other "calculators" on how to do it. It's more than hinted that she's a deal cleverer at this than the IBM employees sent to set up the computer.

The third, and trimmest and sharpest, of the ladies is Mary Jackson (model and recording artist Janelle Monáe), who sets her sights on becoming an aeronautical engineer, though she's in the room with the Colored Calculators. She must go to court and appeal to the judge on personal grounds to get permission to take the extra courses required at NASA now to be granted engineer status.

This is a feel-good movie, for sure, and it comes at a welcome moment with all the horrors black people in America have suffered over the past few years. But it's a shock early in the film to see the three ladies, identified as talented mathematicians performing key work for NASA, get a police escort when their Chevy has broken down and go to work - in a room full of black women, designated "Colored Calculators." How, you wonder, could NASA have "colored" restrooms, "colored" coffee kettles, and a roomful of "colored" calculators?

The answer is Virginia. And as the movie indicates, this was the very early days of the civil rights movement, the sit-ins and marches. There was a long way to go. And there still is. This is a simple movie. It's depictions of African American home and social life are sweet and idealized. Katherine is wooed by a returned vet, Colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali of Moonlight, another asset to a fine cast) with perfect restraint, politeness, and ceeremony. Her three young daughters are perfectly behaved. The three ladies worship at a big, gorgeous black church. But these are simple times. Look at the engineers, in their white short sleeved shirts and thin black ties. Do we know more now?

Hidden Figures, 127 mins., opened (limited) in the US on 25 Dec. 2016. Wider release 6 Jan. 2017; release in many other countries happening, and coming. Many SAGA, BAFTA, and Golden Globes nominations.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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