Sunday, January 15, 2017

Hidden Figures: Women & STEM Do Mix

Hidden Figures is proof that black women get the job done.  Since its first trailer, I have looked forward to seeing the true story about the women behind NASA’s groundbreaking (space-breaking?) expeditions.  The film holds nothing back in portraying the subtle and obvious racial discrimination in the 1960s, but it simultaneously enforces the hope that things can get better.

(Source: Wikipedia)

The film revolves around three women - Dorothy, Mary, and Katherine - who work as "computers" for NASA and must fight to step up the professional ladder.  Mary struggles to become an engineer, Dorothy a computer programmer.  Katherine Goble, the central character, is hired by the space program to check the math for trajectories and launches, a fact that insults hotshot Paul Stratton’s elitist sensibilities.  She struggles to justify her presence to her alleged superiors. The character’s (and the film’s) most powerful, racially charged moment stems from something seemingly mundane: a trip to the bathroom.  Katherine has to trudge a half mile to the west campus to use the colored ladies’ restroom, a forty-minute long endeavor.  We see her do this throughout the movie, until one ridiculously rainy day her boss demands to know why she keeps disappearing.  She explodes.  She tells him off for all the indignities she has endured, from the bathroom to the “colored” coffee cup that everyone refuses to touch.  Such small details, but they build up to a larger injustice.  The scene that follows Katherine's explosion is just as great.

Katherine Goble Johnson
(Source: Wikipedia)

Because I appreciated the movie for portraying important historical women and their struggles, I wanted to love the movie unequivocally.  However, I do have my criticisms.  There were several times where the plot and tension ran a little slow and I started to fidget in my seat.  Meanwhile, all of the three characters experience unprecedented victories, becoming the First African American women to do X, Y, and Z.  Though I understand the need to end on a happy and hopeful note, I also wonder if ending with complete victories all around gives the impression that our work for racial justice is done.  Of course, those women really did succeed in their aspirations, but black people now still have to endure more than their fair share in life.

Though not always possessing the most compelling plot, Hidden Figures does offer sympathetic characters and stellar acting that made me enjoy the film.  I believe that Hidden Figures deserves an audience if for no other reason than our sore need for movies to embrace the talent and genius of women of color.   Katherine and her colleagues deserve for us to know their historic contribution.  They have already been forgotten for long enough.

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