Sunday, February 19, 2017

February's Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman -- HIDDEN FIGURES: When computers were black and wore skirts

Producer/writer/director Theodore Melfi's (St. Vincent) film HIDDEN FIGURES, for which he has been rewarded with an Academy Award nomination for best picture, is a perfect Valentine to Black History Month. (See Melfi in 3rd photo from bottom.) Based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly (below), whose father worked at NASA, it tells the story of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson, at center, right), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe, near right), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer, far right), three of many black women instrumental in the space race of the 1960's.

Satiric, educational, and full of feel-good's, it has the makings of a long-running sit-com. It brings together the disparate worlds of early space science and Jim Crow South, beaming bright on the latter with enough good humor to shame those who play dumb to our racist past, and by inference, our intractable racist present.

Jim Crow law legislated segregation from the period of Reconstruction until President Lyndon Johnson orchestrated the passage of the Civil Rights laws of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. (While segregation dominated the South by law, Northern segregation was enforced through practice -- bank lending and job discrimination, and de facto school segregation.) In the South segregation laws were posted in schools, rest rooms, water fountains, restaurants, work lunch rooms, transportation, etc.

When we meet our three protagonist human "computers" (the women who did the mathematical calculations of space flight with pencils, slide-rules, and chalk) in the 1960's, they are subject to embarrassing working conditions but thrived on the opportunity to work at NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, 1915, morphing into NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1958). Langley, Virginia, where the story is set, is now one of three research facilities among NASA's ten field sites.

Black women with college degrees were likely to teach, but a confluence of events led President John Kennedy to take action that would change the trajectories of some, notes Richard Paul in "Air &Space Magazine" 3/2014. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's earth orbit, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, Alan Shepard's suborbital space flight, the Freedom Rides and imposition of martial law, and Kennedy's man-on-the-moon-in-a-decade speech all happened within weeks of each other in 1961. Kennedy used federal employment to speed integration at the same time NASA and its contractors were creating 200,000 jobs. Kennedy assigned Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson to head both the National Aeronautics and Space Council and the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. Thereafter and with Johnson's propulsion, NASA joined the front lines of the civil rights revolution.

In 2015, math genius Katherine Johnson received the recognition she deserved when President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, noting her work in calculating the trajectories of our first human space flight and her figuring that got John Glenn to the moon and back. (She is now 99 years old.)

Melfi has a humorous touch and he humorously touches all types of racism -- institutional Jim Crow, polite naive racism (of which whites are all guilty at one time or another), and the insults of the nasty bigot. The film satirizes a catalogue of acts of discrimination, such as a tableful of white male heads swiveling as a black woman takes a seat. In a particularly memorable example, Katherine Johnson gets promoted from the black women computers group to the task force for space flight but finds that there's no segregated bathroom in the building. We see her dashing madly across the sprawling Langley campus to a segregated bathroom where she can relieve herself legally, though toilet paper and paper towels are in pitifully short supply.

Kirsten Dunst plays a chilly white supervisor who has no notion of her own unconscious racism; Jim Parsons (above, center left) is Paul Stafford, Head Engineer of the Space Task Group, a nasty competitive bloke at ease taking credit for work that isn't his. Boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner, above, right, in another of his bland laconic good guy roles) only has eyes for the collective goal -- surpassing the Soviet launch of Yuri Gagarin into space. Harrison seizes on Johnson's genius at numbers and promotes her to the dismay of good-ole-boy engineers; also he knocks down the 'white women only' sign so his math star doesn't have to go missing running across campus to go to the bathroom. ("Here at NASA we all pee the same color.")

Meanwhile Dorothy Vaughn (Ms Spencer, below, left) is running the group of black women "computers" (in the building across campus with the segregated rest room) without the title and management pay she deserves. The IBM computer arrives and Dorothy can see the day they will all be replaced by machines -- we like how she solves this, and also Mary Jackson's creativity. Jackson (Ms Monáe, below, right) has a math and physics degree and wants to study engineering, but the schools are segregated. She sweet-talks a judge.

The upbeat joy in the stories of the three women's race to the moon is propelled by a lively, happy score guided by hip hop artist Pharrell Williams (below, left, with director Melfi), gaining him two Oscar nominations for songs, "Running" and "I See a Victory". (Williams wore two hats, also serving as a producer on the film.) He contributed 8 original tunes. Says A.D. Amarosi, Philadelphia Inquirer, "...Williams rises high; not just with sweet R&B appropriate to the Motown era and the optimism of the space race but with his usual sunny pop-hop, this time tinged with strains of gentle folk and sacred song."

Yes, "Hidden Figures" rises high as history-telling and message-making. By implication it speaks to Southern activist Dr. William Barber's call for "The Third Reconstruction" -- new advocacy and peaceful disobedience to stop voter suppression, housing, debt, employment, environmental, and sexual minority discrimination, not to mention cabs that drive by and hands that clutch purses in the presence of a black man. After every step forward in the march to equality, elites push back, providing workarounds to existing anti-discrimination laws; thus "Hidden Figures" is a call both for more scientific journeys into space and more genuine racial equality.

In April, Netflix will launch a new series "Dear White People" based on Justin Simien's 2014 movie of the same title about a group of black students dealing with polite racism at a mostly white ivy league college -- another small step in 'the third reconstruction'.

Hidden Figures, from 20th Century Fox and running 127 minutes, is playing nationwide now. To find the theaters nearest you, click here.

The above post was written by 
our monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman.

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