At the Movies: Hidden Figures

January 25th, 2017 10 Comments

Hidden Figures


In 1959 (I think) my father took me out into a field near the Rhine, away from the lights of our little town, to watch a sputnik pass overhead. Ten years later, I stood on beach in Bermuda watching a full moon as Neil Armstrong took his giant leap for mankind. Quite a lot happened in the wide world between those two events, and Hidden Figures touches on two of the most salient and absorbing issues in America during those years. It was a time when we hovered on the verge of transcending our earth-bound limitations, and hovered too on the verge of transcending some of our moral limitations. We’ve come further faster in one of those areas and still have a way to go in the other.

Very briefly, the plot of Hidden Figures tells the story of (some of) the black women who worked with NASA and helped make John Glenn the first man to orbit the earth. What is not told (and it couldn’t be told within the context of the story the movie needed to tell) is that black men and women had been working in various ways for various branches of the defense industry ever since the outbreak of World War Two. Many of them had stayed on after the war as one (or possibly several) of these defense and intelligence agencies morphed into what is now known as NASA. In theory, they were supposed to work on an equal basis with their white co-workers, and apparently that was accomplished to a certain extent, but… There is always a but. That’s basically the plot.

What is more important, however, is the view the movie provides of Jim Crow racism in pre-civil rights America. I was aware of this theme and it almost made me avoid the movie; I saw enough of that as a child and in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Act to last me a lifetime. I am very glad I went to see Hidden Figures because I learned much about the extraordinary achievements of the so-called “colored computers” (which was how the black “girls” were referred to) and because the handling and portrayal of racism are spot on. This was not the crude, overt racism of mental midgets such as yesterday’s KKK or today’s so-called white nationalists, those loathsome offshoots of Hitler’s National Socialism with its hateful and dishonest ideology. (That kind of hateful and stupid evil will never be completely eradicated from the world. If you believe in God, you know the devil must exist too.) Instead the movie shows the unthinking, unconscious racism of people who grew up in a certain time and with certain norms and who never stopped to think about them. There is a scene where one of the ladies (Taraji P. Henson) explains to her supervisor (Kevin Costner) why she disappears for forty-five minutes at a time, and as she explains—standing by her desk, rain-soaked, embarrassed, in front of all her watching white co-workers—her anger rises, a long-festering boil finally bursting, and she talks about having to drink her coffee from a separate pot, not the one the white folks she works with drink from. When she finally stops, no one speaks, and Kevin Costner turns to look at the table where the coffee pots and cups are assembled, one pot carefully labelled “colored.” It is clear that if he has ever even laid eyes on that little symbol of segregation, he hasn’t seen it, in the sense of taking in the reality of what he sees. That was racism in those days, an unthinking acceptance of what had always been, without ever understanding the pain and humiliation it might cause, without even considering there might be another way to do things.

The three ladies who play the main characters (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe) should all have gotten Academy Award nominations. They were that good. But the performances that absolutely blew me away were Kevin Costner’s quiet, understated, multi-layered portrayal of the busy, preoccupied head of the team Taraji P. Henson works on, a man neither less nor more than any other man of his time and place, but who transforms into something else following that moment when he first really sees the coffee pots. I’ve always admired Costner’s work, but this took him to an all new level.

And then… And then there is Mahershala Ali as Taraji Henson’s suitor. Lord have mercy! Mr. Ali became a specific person so completely and subtly that it will now be hard for me to ever shake the memory of that gentle, strong, dignified persona to see him as anything else. He inhabits the role in the way all actors always strive to do, but I can vouch for the fact that it’s hard enough to strive for, harder still to achieve, and impossible for all but the most gifted few to achieve as perfectly as Mr. Ali did.

And so many others in smaller roles that resonate still: Jim Parsons as a rigid, tight-assed, unthinking racist so typical of that day and that place; Glen Powell as John Glenn, capturing the niceness and decency of that man in just a few, brief scenes…

I could go on, but I would have to list the entire cast.

Two things shocked me about this movie. First, while I can understand—not approve of, but comprehend—the reason why these ladies were never given their due back in that era, why the hell has it taken fifty years for them to be given their rightful place in history?

Second, doing some research about the book I came across the following sentence on Margaret Lee Shetterly’s website (she is the author of the book Hidden Figures, upon which the movie is based):

“A ‘girl’ could be paid significantly less than a man for doing the same job.”

The Equal Pay Act was written into law in 1963, a year before the Civil Rights Act, and women are still marching in the streets for equal pay? It would seem we’ve come further overcoming racism (think of Barack Obama in the White House, voted in by a large majority both times) than we have with pay equality for women, and as far as I know, equal pay has no negative equivalent to the moronic white nationalists. Not America’s finest hour.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Sputnik went up in 1957. I know this because (I am giving my age away) that is the year that I was born. I do remember watching the moon landing. but I don’t think I realized the significance at the time. I was a kid and our dad told us to sit down, shut up and watch it on TV.

    As for racism I do remember a lot of that. My dad would use words that you can not repeat on this blog to describe African Americans. You may remember a show called “All in the Family” with a bigot named Archie Bunker. My dad use to cheer Archie Bunker on saying stuff like “you tell them Archie.” I also remember it on other TV shows too.

  2. Anonymous says:

    David Bowie Space Oddity.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Reading this has made me want to see the movie even more. My oldest sister got this book on a recent library visit and said so far it’s excellent.
    I have to admit that before reading this review where you told how you watched a sputnik with your dad that I never knew sputnik had made more than one trip. I guess watching the movie “October Sky” years ago had me thinking that 1957 was the only time a sputnik was seen. I read your words and looked up sputnik and saw it was in the skies more than just in 1957, so thanks for enlightening me not only on a movie but sputnik as well.
    Nancy Darlene

  4. Anonymous says:


    I saw the trailer for this movie recently before watching La La Land – which I must say was exceptional if you like that 1940-50s, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire type of musical production (which I have always loved. I was the type of kid who thought the world would be a much happier place if people just suddenly burst into song about what they were thinking. I amuse my students by doing this)

    Back to the topic. I am waiting impatiently for its Feb 5 release here in Sydney, AU.

    I am reminded of the story of Edward J Canon and his team of women, that he called his “computers”. One of these was Annie Jump Canon who devised the method that we still use to classify stars. One of her fellow computers, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, inspired by Canon and her group, accurately predicted that the stars were made mostly of hydrogen and helium. She was convinced by her advisor, Henry Norris Russell, to doubt her findings, but, to his credit, when he later found the evidence to be overwhelming, he credited Payne as discovering this first.

    If not for Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson and the series, Cosmos! I would have never realised these amazing women were there. History books have reputation of being written by the victors!

    One more point. You wrote, ” If you believe in God, you know the devil must exist too” referring to ideologies that use nationalism to hide racism. I find it ironic that the institutions which (I believe) are responsible for most racist ignorance and assumptions are those which MAN have devised in the name of God – religions.

    Although I am an atheist, I don’t oppose other people’s choice to believe in gods. I am, however, opposed to kind of blind, ignorant religiously imposed faith that is responsible for so much hostility and oppression and violence. More people are killed in the name of a god than the devil (although I also don’t believe in him/her/it).

    Kathy W
    Sydney, Australia

  5. Anonymous says:

    Did you know you can see the International Space Station as it goes by.

    • Anonymous says:

      The Space Shuttle was also often viewable as well when it was still being launched. Especially fun was when it was approaching the station to dock or after if departed–then two nearby lights were visible.

      In north America many North/South (polar orbit) satellites are visible as well launched from Vandenberg. It is interesting to figure out or guess/speculate as to what polar satellite is being viewed as some of these are spy satellites. Since many of these are in lower orbits as opposed to communication ones which are typically in geosynchronous orbit they can move by especially quickly.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Je me souviens lorsque Neil Armstrong a fait ses premiers pas sur la lune !!! J’habitais encore chez mes parents et je leur avais demandé de me réveiller pour voir cet exploit en direct à la télévision.
    Depuis plusieurs mois, un français fait partie de l’équipage de la station spatiale internationale. Il envoie régulièrement de magnifiques photos de notre planète. Il nous informe aussi des expériences qu’il fait là-haut en apesanteur !!!!
    Lorsque le ciel est clair, je regarde souvent le ciel pour voir passer les satellites. Je suis toujours étonnée de la vitesse à laquelle ils avancent !!!!
    Mais même, si je m’y intéresse un peu, je n’irai jamais……. Je n’aime déjà pas monter dans un avion 😉

  7. Anonymous says:

    Hello JP,

    I guess I know where you had been watching the sputnik at the Rhine with your father: I´ve formerly been walking my dog there many times and somehow it´s a kind of honor to me to have walked virtually in your footsteps 😉

    Thank you for your new recommendation. I was very astonished to see already advertisements for “Hidden Figures”on TV. So I´m hopeful to be able to watch it in our local cinema unlike “Florence Foster Jenkins”. Unfortunately it wasn´t shown at all in our cultural nether land here….

    BUT(!!!)…. Now I negotiated a deal with my husband: If he joins me to “Hidden Figures”. I´ll go with him to “Hacksaw Ridge” although this is not my kind of movie at all.
    In return I´ll might have to wake him up when nothing slams or crashes… 😉

    Joking aside. I´m deeply convinced any kind of unequal treatment is injustice be it racism or financial disparity. At the present time racism seems to be a big issue again (which is incredible enough). Currently there´s a bill introduced here in Germany to reveal the different salaries in companies of a certain size in order to avoid women are payed less than their male colleagues.
    Well….. better late than never! I assume among actors it has been and is even more blatant and you can tell a thing or two about it…..

    Best wishes


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