Five-dollar film

‘Hidden Figures’ and things that are hard to discuss

with Rob Alderman
Posted 3/5/17

There are things that we find difficult to discuss. Sometimes it’s because those things are complicated. Sometimes it’s because those things are sad. Sometimes it’s because we don’t really …

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Five-dollar film

‘Hidden Figures’ and things that are hard to discuss

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There are things that we find difficult to discuss. Sometimes it’s because those things are complicated. Sometimes it’s because those things are sad. Sometimes it’s because we don’t really know what to say anymore.

I find myself that way sometimes when it comes to discussing the obvious issue of systemic racism in the United States.Yes. I opened my movie review with an admission of the difficulty of discussing racism. There’s probably a rule against that in film critique books. Yet here we are, so let’s get to it.

“Hidden Figures” does more to address our national discussion on racism than a thousand news stations could ever accomplish, and it does so in the most straightforward of ways, by showing us the simple facts of what it was like to be a black person in America during the early days of the space race. Even though I have studied the Civil Rights Movement in school and independently, it was jarring to see the conditions that our fellow Americans once lived in. Separate bathrooms. Separate water fountains. Separate coffee pots. Less pay. Less influence. Anger. Sadness.

Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson are “human computers,” and some of the most incredible intellectual powerhouses in the space program. Unfortunately, it’s tough to calculate life saving atmospheric re-entry mathematics when you are having to run a mile and a half to use a segregated bathroom.

It’s into this America that our three heroines find themselves. They are strong willed. They are brilliant. They are women. They are black, and they are about to change the world.With all they have to overcome, it seems pretty hopeless that they will ever amount to more than second-class citizens, but they have one thing (other than their genius) going for them.

America is in a space race with Russia, and that means doing anything necessary to overcome the communist rivals, even placing black women in positions of influence.The story is one of hard work, diligence, and luck, with each woman finding her place within the program and ultimately having a positive impact on not only the space race, but all of American history.

As a white man in the U.S., I found the film to be a strong reminder of the things that other races and genders have had to overcome in our country. The idea of a black person having to use a different water fountain than myself seems ludicrous, and yet that wasn’t so long ago. For some reason, we think of rampant racism like it is ancient history, though our country continues to deal with it every day.This film manages to navigate through many difficult and complicated cultural and social situations while remaining fresh and fun.

It’s hard not to smile through the entire thing. The performances are really wonderful in every way, and I mean that — there wasn’t a single actor who phoned it in, or a character big or small that wasn’t well written.The fact that the film was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar isn’t surprising in the least. It’s hard to tackle difficult subject matter and still make people grin. That’s really something. But there is something bigger that this movie can do.

As the lights came up in our movie theater, there was a black man in the seat in front of me. We both stood up at the same time and looked at each other. I didn’t know what to do, but managed to quietly say, “Hey man, I’m really sorry that it’s hard sometimes to live in America.”

He smiled kindly and replied, “It’s really nice to hear you say that. It makes me feel good. We’ve got a ways to go, but we’re getting there.”

I think he’s right.

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