Hidden Figures

Got to see “Hidden Figures” over the weekend. This weekend, of all weekends – both the holiday celebrating Martin Luther King Jr., and the last weekend that a rational thinker will be in the executive office, at least for a while.

The movie, by the way, is better than flawless. It shows, it doesn’t tell, a very important story, without preaching or swelling up the “triumph of the human will” music. Because as much as this movie is about triumph, and as much as it is very much a feel-good movie, there is also something profoundly sad behind it – and that is that it has a story to tell at all. And it has several.

First, the story, focusing on three black female pioneers at NASA, very matter-of-factly reminds us how straight-up awful it was to be African-American, how deeply ingrained the Jim Crow laws were (separate library books – where there weren’t separate libraries). This was during my lifetime, but early in it, and it’s easy for those details to slip from memory. Being Northern, we tend to shake it off more and forget there were plenty of iniquities up here as well (redlining, anyone?).

And if we like to think that’s all a comfortable distance in the mirror (and it’s not), add to that the challenges the subjects faced as women, and women in science. Both my daughters deal with the fact that they are still very much in the minority in their programs. Engineering programs are up to 18-20 percent female now, and the old prejudices continue. Both have gone to schools led by women, which has barely had an effect, and both have seen continuing institutional and cultural bias that affects how they are perceived, how they are able to participate, and what it is considered acceptable for them to do.

So while the movie featured some fabulous portrayals by seriously talented actresses (and the supporting cast, with an exercise in understatement by Kevin Costner), I couldn’t help but think how sad and stupid and wrong all this was and is. Why would we deny the best and brightest because of their skin color or gender? Why is that even “our” option? So much wasted human potential, lost to us forever, because blacks couldn’t attend courses in a white school, because women shouldn’t be doing math (their tender reproductive systems might suffer). We have chosen to hobble ourselves, in order to . . . what?

Growing up in the ’60s, when the idea was that we would overcome all these unfounded prejudices and hatreds, it just seemed like it was a matter of time. Rights were gained, laws were passed, and it seemed like by now we would be past most of this. It certainly did not seem like we would be riding a resurgent wave of crazed, open racism. I’d like to say the same for misogyny but there wasn’t even the same pretense with regard to women’s rights by those who oppose them. Whether it’s unjust rates of incarceration or forced unnecessary ultrasounds, I can’t imagine thinking this would still be happening.

So, yes, “Hidden Figures” is a note-perfect motion picture, and one of the rare important movies that doesn’t feel like a homework assignment. Its portrayals are supremely human and real (as were the performances in director Theodore Melfi’s previous feature, “St. Vincent”), and it’s supremely entertaining. As sad as the conditions at the time were for the people affected by them, I couldn’t help but feel a strong stirring of nostalgia for one aspect of the culture the movie portrayed, the culture I grew up in – a culture that valued, praised, and celebrated science. A culture that took pride in advancements . . . in moving forward, not backward.

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