July 18, 2019

Popcorn: “Hidden Figures”

Amounts to an Important Tale

3 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger

film critic


Watching director Theodore Melfi’s “Hidden Figures,” about the African-American women working for NASA who were instrumental if not indispensable to getting our first man in space, we scratch our heads and can’t help but ask ourselves, “How come I didn’t know this?” But figuring the truth here isn’t rocket science. So many years after the fact, it’s the same depth of prejudice that hampered Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and their sister colleagues from convincing the space agency of their genius that has squirreled away their story.


This is a civics lesson, especially important at this tremulous juncture when a sizable portion of our population wishes to forego the humanitarian advancement of our species for the sake of a personal interest that they’ve been tricked into believing is at war with all progressive thought. As such, its dramatically satisfying treatise on the snail’s pace of civil rights is just as much pragmatic as it is sweetly idealistic. By personalizing the tale through the eyes of its three protagonists, the screenplay studies the stresses, fears and ingrained mysteries of bigotry.


Thus we shockingly learn that, at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, where Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner, heads the Space Task Group of the era’s supposed Best and the Brightest, Jim Crow is very much alive and at work, keeping humankind from its destiny. There, working at the segregated West Area Computers section, circa 1962, Katherine, a math wiz played by Taraji P. Henson; Dorothy, a team leader portrayed by Octavia Spencer; and Janelle Monáe’s Mary Jackson, an engineer, crunch important numbers in relative obscurity.


But, as necessity is the mother of invention, sometimes it can also be the arbitrator of racial tolerance: i.e. – As admirable as Branch Rickey’s decision was to have Jackie Robinson break the Major League Baseball color line, it was essentially a way for the sport to at last avail itself of the vast talent pool swelling the Negro leagues. Likewise, when it’s discovered just how brilliant Katherine is, she’s invited to work alongside her white counterparts. However, just like the famed Brooklyn Dodger, her admittance is fraught with rather unseemly resistance.


In a tragicomic comment on the invisible wall that defies reason in the name of deep-rooted bias, it is a while before Costner’s Al Harrison, the egghead boss under pressure to catch up with the Russians following the Sputnik’s success, becomes aware of the roadblocks Katherine faces. But he is a devoted scientist who doesn’t suffer foolery. So, when he discovers that Katherine is away from her desk for inordinate amounts of time because she has to run a half mile each way to the “colored only” bathroom, we cheer his abashment and resolution.


In smart, contextual contrast to the hard work of tearing down the unproductive, age-old injustice of discrimination that Katherine, Dorothy and Mary devote themselves to, director Melfi intersperses the drama with real-life images from the era. Footage of President John F. Kennedy exhorting us to noble deeds cannot help but bring a tear as we are reminded of the hope for social enlightenment that was snatched from us.


Putting it in perspective, while we Americans at that time, both Democrat and Republican, were of course devoted to our partisan ideologies, we were not so divided that we couldn’t imagine a greater good… one we knew we were capable of attaining if we selflessly sought it. But the assassination launched a cynicism that eroded the postwar feeling of renewed innocence, vitality and goodwill, causing us a suspicion of conspiracy at almost every turn, too often corroborated. It helped fuel the revolutionary 1960s, was held at bay, but has now again reared its ugly head.


Our story takes place at the nexus between these two epochs, when the country still has an appetite for real, honest-to-goodness heroes and anxiously anticipates our astronauts catching up with and surpassing those darn Russian cosmonauts. The Cold War is being played out in the heavens. Managing a balancing act between suing for their rights and nonetheless championing the pioneering efforts of a land that once counted them as 3/5ths of a citizen, the story of our mathematical troika is an uplifting, educational and compelling lesson in patriotism.


Coupled with the technical ins and outs of putting a manned rocket out among the stars, this PG-rated cornucopia of human potential should be liberally shown in schools wherever parents want their children to be able to say, “Yes we can.” Indeed, we are impressed as well as thankful when we learn that John Glenn insisted that Katherine look over the trajectory numbers before he would leave Earth. For in the process, the mathematician did some trailblazing of her own, clearing the path for future generations to dream out in the open, and not as “Hidden Figures.”

“Hidden Figures,” rated PG, is a Twentieth Century Fox release directed by Theodore Melfi and stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe. Running time: 127 minutes



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