Thursday, 23 February 2017

Hidden Figures.

In case you wondered why I overdid things on Wednesday, it was because of Tuesday - we went to the movies;

The Empire in Slough is cheap (especially on 'Saver Tuesdays'!) but the multiplex was carved out of a 1980's theatre complex by an eccentric and cross-eyed architect.

So this time when I emerged from the disabled lift I found I still had four flights of stairs to get up (and down) and it really hurt.

But I made it and that gave me an inflated view of my abilities the next day.

We'd been looking forward to 'Hidden Figures' for a while; the real life story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson who worked for NASA in the 1960's. This was at the time when space travel was new and required new and complicated mathematics to calculate the trajectories.

There wasn't anything so remarkable about the three - this was the time before electronic computers when organisations faced with doing complex maths made use of large numbers of women as 'computers' to do the manual sums. What made them stand out was that at a time of racial segregation in America, these three like many others were black.

More than that, faced with a lifetime of prejudice many of the black 'computers' were in fact highly talented, pioneering mathematicians in their own right, capable of far more than the 'sums' they were asked to calculate.

These three were just a sample of those who worked very hard in the background to make the 'space race' possible.

As this extract from a recent 'Popular Mechanics' review of the film shows, they were some remarkable people;

"Katherine Johnson, the movie's protagonist, was something of a child prodigy. Hailing from the small West Virginian town of White Sulphur Springs, she graduated from high school at 14 and the historically black West Virginia State University at 18. In 1938, as a graduate student, she became one of three students—and the only woman—to desegregate West Virginia's state college. In 1953, Johnson was hired by NACA and, five years later, NACA became NASA thanks to the Space Act of 1958."

The film takes place as the great set piece battles to desegregate America were starting and against a backdrop of separate water fountains and restrooms for 'whites' and 'coloured's', when black people had to travel on 'the back of the bus', when you couldn't go to Woolworths Lunch Counter if you used the wrong entrance.

If anything, the things that disappointed me were that the film was too understated; at one point the head of the facility (played by Kevin Costner) smashes down the 'Coloured Ladies Washroom' sign after he hears that it takes Katherine an hour to get to and from 'her' restroom on the other side of the facility.

In the real world, Katherine Johnson simply ignored the rules and used the 'white restroom' without asking and the rules soon got forgotten - far more liberating and exciting than the movie version.

I suppose I wanted more - a 'happy ending' for example.

There wasn't one.

The black 'computers' did amazing things - they made American spaceflight possible and pioneered the use of massive IBM mainframe electronic computers, but they were held back by their gender and the colour of their skin which prevented them from getting the qualifications or the promotions their white, male counterparts would have got.

I suppose I wanted their battles to have achieved more - Robyn's view was that the film was about peoples 'little fights' rather than the great big battles that changed the world.

And a whole lot of 'little victories' make up a big battle.

Maybe it was because it's a patriotic film and the characters in it were patriots; it was the story of the American battle to build the rockets that put their men in space and (coincidently) their nuclear bombs on the top of those rockets.

Not a cause I could ever really support.

But in the process of doing it, the U.S. desperately needed the help of oppressed minorities and this film is about the small, individual struggles of those people against prejudice and injustice.

It came out a lot earlier in the States which means it's up for Oscars this week and deserves them - it out grossed 'La La Land' easily.

If the only Oscar it gets goes to Kevin Costner, I would be really angry!

Check it out for yourself.

Neil Harris
(a don't stop till you drop production)
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1 comment:

  1. Well Neil,that's Hollywood. And as for happy endings, there really aren't too many Black American History stories with happy endings.