Hidden Figures

Early in 2017, Chris and I went to see the movie Hidden Figures as part of our project to see all the movies nominated for best picture. It is unlikely that we will succeed at this project, but the fun is in the chase.

The movie was very enjoyable. The movie tells the story of 3 black women none of us have ever heard of. Its story suggests that without the mathematical and related genius of these 3 women the United States Space program would not have put John Glenn in space to “sort of” catch up with the Russians who had recently put an man in space. It was unacceptable to the Americans that the despised Russians had done it first. President Kennedy wanted to catch up. The glory of America and capitalism demanded that the upstart Commies be put in their proper place–well behind the Americans. There was tremendous pressure on the entire space program led by NASA to catch up and show the world that America and capitalism were superior to Russia and communism.

Part of the American problem was that it was hobbled by prejudice that led to it not using properly women and blacks. It did have a group of white women “computers” and another group of “negro computers” who of course could not work together. They had to be “separate but equal” as the courts had demanded. Of course this meant that a woman mathematical genius that the space program desperately needed had to run more than ½ mile to the “colored washroom.” It just would not do for her to use the white washroom. Of course the white washroom was well-appointed, while the colored washroom was lacking basic supplies. Hardly equal but certainly separate.

The male engineers and mathematical geniuses were loath to accept the contribution of a black woman. It just could not be possible, could it, that she was better at math than the entire room of white men? Well it was clear that she was better and it was clear that she was needed to help the men. This was done by Katherine Goble the central character.

The space program also needed Mary Jackson who had to go to college to be accepted but could not go to classes in the local school which was segregated. The law in Virginia at the time was clear, schools could be segregated. Again the arcane prejudicial rules that made no sense were holding back women who could help the American team. To get to go to school she had to petition the local court and she did so on her own without hiring a lawyer. She made an interesting argument to the white judge. She did not appeal to his sense of fairness, she did not make some innovative legal argument, she appealed to the judge’s vanity and she did in quietly by approaching the bench. She persuaded the judge he could be the first to grant a black woman the right to go to a segregated school in Virginia. He bought that approach and granted her the right to go to the all-white school, but only at night.

Finally Dorothy Vaughan the defacto leader of the black female “computers and a mechanical genius was needed to get the IBM computers working and again she had to struggle against prejudice against blacks, particularly black women, to be freed to help the team. The IBM computer team could not solve the computer problems. Dorothy could because she had learned Fortran computer language by stealing a book from the white side of the local library that barred coloreds from using white books.

Richard Brody, writing in the New Yorker, aptly characterized the travesty of racism in America as demonstrated by the film.

The insults and indignities that black residents of Virginia, and black employees of NASA, unremittingly endured are integral to the drama. Those segregationist rules and norms—and the personal attitudes and actions that sustained them—are unfolded with a clear, forceful, analytical, and unstinting specificity. The efforts of black Virginians to cope with relentless ambient racism and, where possible, to point it out, resist it, overcome it, and even defeat it are the focus of the drama. “Hidden Figures” is a film of calm and bright rage at the way things were—an exemplary reproach to the very notion of political nostalgia. It depicts repugnant attitudes and practices of white supremacy that poisoned earlier generations’ achievements and that are inseparable from those achievements. [1]

The movie showed how a country could be severely disadvantaged by failing to take advantage of all of its citizens. Each of the 3 cases represented by the 3 women demonstrated the foolishness of racial laws of segregation and how they could hold back the space program. Racism levies a heavy cost not just on the citizen disadvantaged, but also the country in which they live and in which racism thrives. When a country cannot benefit from all of its citizens no one suffers more than that country. Forget about arguments of fairness or natural justice. Racism is bad for business! That is a profound lesson, which America has still not really learned. It has made progress but it is far from free of racism. Racism has just gone deeply underground where its ill effects are harder to detect but no less damaging. Those ill effects are however just as wrong and just as detrimental to the country.

[1] Richard Brody, Hidden figures is a Subtle and Powerful Work of Counter-history,” The New Yorker, (December 23, 2016)

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