Friday, January 13, 2017

Watching ‘Hidden Figures’ (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe), and Recalling Life Lessons From One’s Own Past

MASTER MINDS: Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) have a reason to smile – they are the brains behind major operations at a NASA facility in “Hidden Figures.” Photos courtesy of 20th Century Fox.


is difficult to watch "Hidden Figures" as just a movie.

Indeed, it is extremely difficult, because I am witnessing history and recalling childhood memories, which have spawn several observations.

Based on Margot Lee Shetterly's book of the same name, "Hidden Figures" tells the story of mathematician Katherine G. Johnson who was instrumental in the success of NASA’s Project Mercury and other space missions, as well as the story of two other black female mathematicians working at a segregated NASA facility in Hampton, VA.

The film opened in limited release on 25 Dec. and widely on 6 Jan. and stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe as the title characters.

"Hidden Figures" is set during Jim Crow, a period that is all-too often forgotten in this culture where too many folk believe we live in a post-racial society. Of course, that notion was obliterated, the recent presidential campaign being a glaring and disturbing example to the contrary.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am black. I do not identify as African-American. In vogue since the mid ‘90s, African-American is the latest appellation for certain Americans of African descent. Heretofore, dating to circa mid-'60s, we were black. Before that we were Colored, which was preceded by Negro, for instance.

To aid the understanding of foreigners and/or those in places like New York City who have had little exposure to Americans of African descent who did not grow up/were not born in one of the five boroughs or the TriState area, when I invoke the moniker black, I mean that my West African ancestors - like the African-American characters in "Hidden Figures" - were snatched from West Africa and brought and enslaved in what we now know as the United States of America.

My African ancestors were not dropped off on a Caribbean island, therefore while I am black, I am not Dominican, Haitian, Jamaican or Puerto Rican, for instance.

Now an “official” supervisor, Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) leads her ladies to the NASA computer lab.

It is on the backs of my African ancestors and those of the "Hidden Figures" characters that this great country was built. It was they who were on the frontlines of the movements that have made our republic reasonably livable for all non-European people - particularly those of African descent - and a good deal of European-descent Americans.

The experiences of the women in "Hidden Figures" reflect stories that I grew up hearing in the home of my grandparents who raised my brother and me. They often spoke with visitors to our home about the struggles they and others faced and still did.

When I was as young as 10, I was programmed to believe – like the hidden figures – that I would have to be twice as good at a job as a white person to be considered equal. Though started at home, this teaching continued at school, starting in 7th grade.

I did not grow up in post-civil rights America with the notion, either overtly or covertly, that there is inherent superiority in whiteness or that blacks get jobs, not because they are competent, but because of Affirmative Action, regardless of their level of competence.

On the contrary, I was generally socialized to believe that black people were often overqualified and were passed over for jobs by less-qualified whites. That black women, in particular, knew better than anyone else how to run whatever office in which they were employed. So often, they would train a white male who would become their boss.

This is the workplace that is so much in evidence in "Hidden Figures." Do note that I do not believe in the inherent superiority, inferiority, competence or incompetence of any ethnic group.

Meanwhile, another observation. The events in the film are unfolding in the early '60s. Some of the most explosive developments of the Civil Rights Movement have yet to take place. The March on Washington has not been organized, nor the Montgomery boycott. Roe vs. Wade is not yet law. Abortion is illegal. It is very much a WASP man's world.

Except for NASA and a very few other places, women in the workplace were mainly secretaries or cleaning ladies. The former must adhere to a strict dress code. In this environment, it is not at all exceptional for John Glenn (Glen Powell), for the time, a progressive in the main, to refer to Katherine Johnson as a girl. Not only is she just as educated and older than he, she is a widow with three children.

Katherine, is in the current vernacular, a grown-a_ _ woman. To paraphrase Walter Cronkite, "That's the way it was."

Mary (Janelle Monáe) and other Hampton, Virginia residents watch and worry as the Project Mercury mission experiences a snafu.

"Hidden Figures" is a tad too reverent and wants a more brisk pace. However, without exception, the performances are solid, particularly TPH as Katherine, the “computer” who wrote the schematics that launched JG into space and back safely down to earth. Fans of "Empire" may be surprised to learn that girlfriend is an actor with a capital A and was thus long before that popular series.

My only real quibble with the film is that it focuses too much on the lead-up to the Mercury mission and the white characters, particularly that of Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) at the expense of more of the interior lives and interior struggles of the three protagonists.

These dynamic women are living under Jim Crow, state-sanctioned discrimination, racism and separatism. It's highly doubtful that they returned home and uttered nary a word about the overt unfairness they endured at the office.

Undoubtedly, Katherine complained – perhaps bitterly even – at least once about the half-mile journey she was required to make several times a day just to relieve herself. No doubt, all three railed against various indignities at some point.

A final and striking observation about "Hidden Figures" is that it offers a depiction of black womanhood in the guise of a lady. It is one of three films to open recently about which this claim can be made. The others are "Loving" and "Fences."

Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) reads to her daughters after a long and challenging day at the office.

How gratifying it is to see black women on the big screen who share a marked resemblance to the kind of women I – and no doubt, countless others – knew growing up and with whom I am still acquainted. Yes, the hyper-sexualized, hypo-intellectualized vixen and the coarse, crass, corpulent neck-roller are a sad reality. But far more black women are class and dignity personified.

It is utterly possible for black women to deal with stressful situations without elevating their voices and raining down an avalanche of expletives. They can calmly explain why they are not where they are not expected to be. Certainly, sisters make cool, reasoned arguments to attain what should be rightfully theirs anyway.

And when they are laboring under extreme righteous indignation, they have the wherewithal to express it and remain every inch a lady, though their hair is a mess.

The film brings these women, and so much more, out of the background, to front and center. Hidden figures no longer.

Now an “official” supervisor, Dorothy (Octavia Spencer, front and center) and the ladies she supervises at the NASA computer lab.

“Hidden Figures” is rated PG for thematic elements and some language; visit to learn more about the film.

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