On “Hidden Figures”: Lost and Found Styles of Radical Will

It has been a very special year for Black cinema.  I know I am not the first person to say this and some of you may be sick to the back teeth of hearing it.  But this old gray female head believes that we need to remember this year’s successes and honor them because if there is one thing we should know by now is that nothing should be taken for granted.  I am holding on to hope in the midst of the darkness that is the Trump regime.  But you know it would not surprise me if some fool jumped up tomorrow to call for the banning of Moonlight or the burning of Wilson’s works or for a class action suit against the creators of Get Out on the grounds of reverse racism.  Make no mistake we are in a dog fight–an increasingly bitter and volatile culture war amped up by the deliberately provocative language and posturing of Trump, his associates, his regime and the Tea Party that nurtured him.

And in this fight, a fight for democracy, a fight for evidence and reason and expertise over the rule of fascist ideology, science deniers and misogyny so raw its like bad porn–cultural products are not to be underestimated.  It’s not simply the little statue of Oscar and the fumbling of envelopes, or whose work has been yet again ignored by the Grammys. Nor is it gross profit. Movies, music, novels, television shows are also arsenal and strategy in this war, not just diversion or propaganda.  Which is why the film, Hidden Figures is balm to my wounded soul.

But first we have to start with the writing.  This is because Hidden Figures was composed in 2016 as a work of non-fiction, a work of history by Margot Lee Shetterly, who was born and brought up around Black intellectuals, some of whom worked at NASA.  And this is important because part of the appeal of Hidden Figures is that the story is based on true events with real people.  So Hidden Figures is on one level about three women mathematicians who were not a part of popular culture, but who were actually pretty easy to find if you knew to look.  The same way you get introduced to Armstrong or Aldrin, or John Glenn, the astronaut whose flight is at stake in the film, we could have met Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae).  We could have learned how they contributed to space science. There was no reason for these women to be hidden over the past half century, except for the monumental bias in our education system which routinely excludes the accomplishments and contributions of Black people and women.  In the American South after Reconstruction, Jim Crow policies encouraged the invisibility of Black genius. And the power of the film lies in understanding how. in the uncovering of such genius, America became a better country.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still horrendous gaps in American society between Black and white Americans.  According to a Forbes article published in the winter of last year it will take black Americans two hundred and twenty eight years to have as much wealth as white Americans have today.

Too many aspects of slavery and sharecropping still persist in American society.  Jim Crow’s legacy thrives without needing explicit signage of White Only, Colored Only.  The culture of separation and exploitation and racial micro-aggressions remains deeply embedded in the fabric of the country.

It’s true we can use the same toilets and coffee is by Costa or Starbucks, but we still have problems on the road–interactions with police that are a bit nip and tuck and which call for more soft skills on the part of the Black driver than on the part of the police officer with a loaded gun.  There are still jobs where we are the first or only one of our kind.  We still have colleagues that say and do things that undermine and cheat us of our dignity, based on their prejudice and sense of entitlement.  Many of us have well-meaning but ultimately clueless white acquaintances that say they want to help but who really want to be absolved from responsibility or a nagging feeling of guilt.  Hidden Figures showcases these everyday jabs to the chin and gut and especially to the bladder.  We in the audience laughed the first couple of times Katherine had to cross the equivalent of a large university campus in order to find a rest room she could use without risking jail.  But by the third time we knew it wasn’t funny anymore.  And while we were all satisfied when the head of the Space Task Group, Al Harrison played with sweet restraint by Kevin Costner, smashes the signs and declares that women will go to whatever toilet is closest, it is not my favorite moment in the film.  Others, like American critic (and old friend) Richard Torres, point to a scene of an encounter in the newly desegregated bathroom.  Torres writes “Dunst tells Spencer that she doesn’t really dislike Black folk, to which a smiling Spencer coolly responds, ‘I’m sure you really believe that.’ ” It’s a delicate but powerful moment, easily ruined in less disciplined hands. Much credit should go to the adaptation of Allison Schroeder and the no-frills direction of Theodore Melfi who simply allows the story to unfold within the warm circle of a first- rate ensemble cast.

As a general rule I despise “American exceptionalism” of any kind–the sort of case which always upholds the distinctive nature of America’s past.  It always struck me as arrogant and, well, prototypically,  embarrassingly American.  And then in talking with my Black women friends here in Britain about this film I found I had to explain Jim Crow, focusing on differences between the North and the South, federal versus state laws, and the discipline and excellence in many Black schools below the Mason-Dixon line.  My friends had heard of segregation but they had no grainy knowledge of it nor how such policies shaped American life; its economy and culture.  They also had no understanding that in post-war America some jobs were considered women’s jobs–new high-tech computers notwithstanding–and that these positions were not open to Black men.  In short, I learned from having conversations about the film that much of who I am as an African American is (god-help-me) unique to America. And that insight leads me to consider what has been lost, what remains to be done in my country of origin. Which, in turn, leads me to  share with you my favorite scene.

Mary Jackson wants to further her education and become an engineer but the law is not on her side. She has to fight for her right to obtain that education, standing her ground when the powers that be mean to avoid even entertaining her petition. Mary never panics. As played by Jannelle Monae she’s sassy and feisty as vinegar yet she’s cool too. When she comes before the judge, she displays a wondrous capacity to imagine her would-be righteous oppressor from within. She appeals to this authority figure’s image of his own best self, pushing him to recall the sense of purpose he once had when he entered the legal profession. She appeals to his pride and his own deep familial emotions, revealing that she too shares that same kind of pride and ambition and sense of family. There’s so much humanity and insight in her argument. Mary knows how to express herself to get what she wants from a white judge without anger or loss of dignity.  This ability to communicate without rancour the injustice of the system and to get what you want is something my mother had, my father too.  It’s a lost art; one we may need to revive and teach one another.