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.