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Sunday, January 8, 2017

"Hidden Figures": Inspirational, Starchy, and Skewed

"Hidden Figures" is an inspirational bio-pic about three real black women mathematicians who played a part in NASA. It's relentlessly wholesome and a bit starchy, but worth seeing for the history it presents.

Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Johnson, who calculated the flight trajectories for Project Mercury and the Apollo 11 moon flight. Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan, the first black woman supervisor at NACA (later NASA). Janelle Monae plays Mary Jackson, a mathematician and aerospace engineer. Kevin Costner plays the fictional Al Harrison, a composite boss figure. Kirsten Dunst is another composite figure, representing the mean white racist. Jim Parsons is, again, a composite figure, playing the mean white racist male version.

"Hidden Figures" shows its leads struggling against white racism. NASA was located in Langley, Virginia, which operated under Jim Crow. Johnson must run between buildings, often in pouring rain, in order to use the "colored" restroom. Her coworkers decline to drink coffee from the same pot she uses. White coworkers refer to the black women by their first names, while the black women refer to the whites as Mr or Miss and last name. In spite of all this, the women are able to achieve significant contributions to the space program, using their superior skills at mathematics.

The movie's thoroughgoing wholesome preachiness can make it a bit dull. The black people in the film are all perfect – beautiful, perfectly dressed, kind, rational, great parents. Not a single black character ever dresses poorly or loses her temper or swears or is impatient with children or makes a mistake. Such perfect people make for boring drama.

In recent years, Hollywood has caught much flak when it produces movies that show whites advancing black civil rights. "Mississippi Burning" was widely criticized for telling the true story of white contributions to the Civil Rights movement. Critics demanded films that depicted blacks as heroes and whites as bad guys. The historical reality is, though, that without white allies, Civil Rights would have been dead in the water.

As I was watching "Hidden Figures," I thought of the invisible white allies the film erased from its account. Virtually every white person the film's black women encounter is a hostile bigot or merely clueless (as is Costner's composite character). A Polish engineer, the real life Kazimierz Czarnecki, is shown in a seconds-long scene encouraging a black woman, but it is made clear that he is encouraging her because he is a foreigner and not American. In another seconds-long scene, astronaut John Glenn is shown going out of his way to be pleasant to the black women; Harrison pulls him away, as if to say, "Being nice to black people is not allowed at NASA."

I don't believe that African American women were invited into NASA, encouraged to get advanced degrees, and to spread their wings without white higher-ups deciding that NASA would challenge Jim Crow and play a part in the Civil Rights Movement. Those farsighted heroes, whoever they were, have been erased from this account.

Another aspect of the film is ironic. The movie wants the viewer to accept black women as thinkers. And yet it dresses two of its leads in the tightest of dresses and the highest of heels and the lushest of fake eyelashes. Even when at home, putting the kids to bed, the leads are picture perfect. Look at photos of the real Jackson, Vaughan, and Johnson. They were not hot models. They looked like mathematicians often look: a bit rumpled, with average attractiveness.

Yes yes we all know movies must have attractive leads. But Russel Crowe was allowed to look rumpled and nerdy in "A Beautiful Mind," about mathematician John Nash. No one forced him to wear a tight shirt that displayed his chest hair or his pecs. Even movies urging equality must resort to old fashioned, sexist objectification of women's bodies in order to bring in viewers.

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