Quick Thoughts: Hidden Figures Film

It’s 1am. It’s been 3 hours since I’ve come home from seeing Hidden Figures. I’ve watched Obama’s last farewell speech, Instagramed my 2008 Obama The New York Times election issue and baked and ate a vegetarian lasagna. But I can’t go to bed until I write something down about this movie. Forgive any typos.

Here are my quick thoughts:

It’s PG rated, so expect accordingly. Granted that and the fact that Kevin Costner is in it, I expected (and received) a more survey level overview of the impact made and barriers faced by Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan… and cheesy lines like when Kevin’s character  knocked down the Colored Ladies Room sign and said “At NASA, we all pee the same color”. REALLY? In any case, I hope this movie inspires everyone, young and old alike, to take to their computers (the machine ones, not the human ones) and get all their Googles done on these women.

Emotional ping pong. I felt the scenes alternated between happy and sad, funny and somber. It was annoying at first, but then I realized that life as a marginalized person can be this way: You’re living your life, having a good time, then you get slammed with some racist, microaggression BS and then you have to continue on.

Janelle Monae casting. Janelle did a good job as Mary Jackson and I liked her in the role. That said, although I cannot imagine a world where Will Smith’s public career is just music, I do not support the casting of singers as actors for people of color. With the myth that black leads can’t sell tickets, it seems that black talent have a better chance of landing roles if they come to the screen with an audience. There are very serious actors of color who’ve dedicated their academic and professional lives to drama and can’t land roles because there aren’t enough roles for us. You don’t see this trend as much with white actors. Hopefully, some of those women as extras in the Colored Computers room will use this as a launch into something greater.

Opening car trouble scene. This disturbed me a bit. When the women see a police car coming down the highway, they know it’s for them. As Dorothy and Mary exchangdd when they nervously put themselves at attention to receive the officer, “There’s no crime in having car trouble…. There’s no crime in being a Negro either”. Dorothy is right to tell Mary to “button up” her lip because “no body wants to go to jail because of her mouth,” there’s truth and fallacy wrapped up in one. Yes, being “disrespectful” can land you in jail as a person of color, but as we’ve seen with Sandra Bland and the innumerable people of color who have been brutalized or killed for less, it shows us otherwise.

John Glenn and the myth of colorblindness. There’s something about this actor’s smile that gave me the creeps. In the few lines he had while interacting with the black women in the story, he seemed joyfully ignorant of the challenges and racial realities of his time. He came off as this jolly go lucky white guy who wanted to travel around the space in bliss, with no consciousness of the privilege that enabled him to get there and the barriers still faced by those who helped him along. When shaking the hands of the NASA employees, he was rushed by his handlers to finish up and not greet the black women segregated on the line. He seems totally oblivious about why they were in such a rush and even communicates that to the women. Then towards the end, when wanting his launch/landing calculations confirmed by hand, he asked for “the girl” (who was recently reassigned back to the Colored Wing). When he needed to confirm which one, he said he wanted “the smart one.” Sure, we want people of color to be known by their capabilities and other characteristics besides the color of their skin, but this post-racial, colorblind society does not exist. In an attempt to signify progress, this portion of the film takes us back.

The three daughters. I don’t know if this part of Katherine’s story is true (I still need to do my Googles), but I LOVE the fact that she had three daughters (of varying shades). To me, it really reflected the three main women in the story and the impact they had on the possibilities for girls and women of color. When Katherine’s daughter gave her the drawing with her mother as an astronaut, to me it both 1) reflected the simplicity of how children see the world- I imagine that the girls don’t really understand what their mom does so the space stuff she does must mean that she’s an astronaut, and 2) reminded me of Mae Jemison, an engineer, a physician, astronaut, and first black woman in space who was just 5 years old somewhere at the time that this scene takes place. You also see this when Dorothy explains to her sons that “separate but equal” is not right. It’s critical to train children to imagine and reach beyond what they see in front of them- in a sense, as the movie tells us, to create the math that’s not there.

Mile long bathroom runs. With the upbeat music, it was definitely used as filler scenes and comic relief. There’s nothing funny about that.

White redemption handed out like Oprah’s cars. Every single major white character in the film gets an arch where they become redeemed through some stroke of altruistic benevolence or ignorance leading them to a change of heart:

  • Mary’s court judge. Judge is compelled by Mary’s moving speech to convince him to let her take night classes at the all white high school (even though Brown v. Board of Ed had made this type of segregation unconstitutional move than 5 years before this scene takes place). Yes, she got her degree inevitably, but there’s no conversation or hinting at whether the bar kept moving further and further out of her reach to qualify for the engineering program.
  • Police officer. He stopped these women, intimidated them about where they were and whether they were being respectful enough to him and then he just moved on to offer an escort to their job? The moment was treated as comic relief to have”three Negro women chasing a white police car down the highway” but it’s not.
  • Kevin Costner. Was his character impassioned by Katherine’s speech about her long trek to the bathroom and Colored Coffee? Unlikely. Did he want his best resource wasting time during the day going to the bathroom? No. His comment of peeing the same color is not as accurate as his comment about asking Katherine to use whatever bathroom she wanted, “preferably closer to her desk.” Also, he didn’t let her into the board room because he was nice. From a quick Google, he let her in because she asked whether it was the law to keep her out.
  • Dude from Big Bang Theory. Starting off making it hard for Katherine to do her work to then ultimately being the voice and taking credit for her work put him in line with a long, thriving tradition of women of color being unvalued and silenced from their contributions. During the ending scene, dude from Big Bang Theory brings Katherine her coffee in her brown mug and accepts the typed notes with both his and Katherine’s name on it, Katherine’s name second.
  • Chick from Bring it On. Time and time again, Dunst’s character blocks Dorothy from getting the title (and pay) that reflected the role she had been taking on: Supervisor. Don’t we all know that story. Only after Dorothy made herself and her team busted ass to become invaluable as programmers for the IBM and she called Dunst’s character out on her “but I’m a good person” speech in the bathroom, did Dunst’s character give her the role she had already earned.
  • Mary’s teacher just didn’t know anything and was clearly unprepared for her arrival, leaving Crazy Librarian lady as the only one who didn’t get to show how she changed. I can only assume she continued blocking people of color’s access to information. A long and thriving tradition as well.

It would have been so much better to see this film truly though the lens of Katherine, Mary and Dorothy (who had very little backstory). Not only would it be a better story, but would let me know that this movie was for me. As is, it’s not. Progress for people of color cannot and does  it depend on the niceness of those with power. Like that library book Dorothy took, you have to take what’s rightfully yours.

Kevin Costner’s character is a terrible boss. He clearly has no idea what happens to his team. Forget Katherine’s bathroom runs, he didn’t even know the coffee situation in his own office.

Supportive husbands left and right. Well, that’s a welcomed change from what’s typically shown on film. All three women had (black) men in their lives who ultimately respected and supported the work they were doing.

Double, triple shifts. Not only did these women work long grueling hours being doubted and slighted at so many levels, they were shown to be active mothers, wives, and church women. As shown in Dorothy and Mary’s story, they went to extraordinary lengths for personal learning and academic achievement to get to the next level of their careers- with what time, I have no idea. Twice as hard to get half as far on a moving target.

Backdrop of Civil Rights. I thought it was important that they showed (though very briefly) the concurrent struggles with the fight for Civil Rights. I highly doubt these women had no opinion on what was going on, but instead they were shown to just rather cross the street and no be included in the trouble. If this movie was truly done from their perspectives, I think we would have seen some more nuance in this regard.

Favorite scene #1. When Katherine gave her bathroom and coffee speech, the way Taraji acted this scene was brilliant. There’s the back and forth of frustration and restraint that I understand and have felt. It’s the feeling when you’re unfolding while conscious of the risk in speaking out. It’s a delicate balance that doesn’t always reap rewards.

Favorite scene #2. When the reassigned Katherine is called upon at the last minute to double check the IBM’s calculations, she saves the day, but still gets the door shut in her face (eventually Costner reopens it) but there was such truth in that moment. There will always be doors in a country that was build by, but not for you.

I’m sure there are lots more to grab onto from this movie and I look forward to watching it again (in the privacy of airplane headphones and without the inappropriately timed laughter of some in the audience I was in).

Hope you also enjoyed it and happy Googling!

-JB

 

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