Film: Hidden Figures
Cast: Taraji P Henson, Kevin Costner, Olivia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Mahershala Ali, Kirsten Dunst
Director: Theodore Melfi
You’ve come a long way, Hollywood; you have. Gone with the wind are the days when the only blacks that figured, in cameos, were overweight domestics and weary cotton hands. The heroes of this heart warming movie are black women. Egg heads at that. Theodore Melfi’s “Hidden Figures” is an inspirational true story that combines the turmoil of the American civil rights movement with an intimate insight into race-riven America of the early sixties. (The much loved Beatles aren’t there yet, but the nasty Cold War is) Melfi’s commendable venture has been written for the screen by Alison Schroeder from Margot Lee Shetterly’s book which revolves around a trio of black women employed at NASA.
Since film goers vastly outnumber book readers, Melfi (and before him, Mira Nair who made a biopic on the Ugandan chess wizard titled Queen of Katwe) must be commended for educating viewers that super-Intelligence is not confined to the white race. Has Bollywood produced a biopic on our very own math wizard Shakuntala Devi? I think not. Consider the fact that the zero concept originated in India. And Arabic numerals actually originated in India and were picked up by Arabs during trade with what is now Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Goa and Maharashtra.
ISRO has just shot off 104 satellites in a single flight; in the movie we see the Soviets send the first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into outer space (April 12, 1961) and John Glenn became the first American to orbit space (February 20, 1962). And as Martin Luther King addresses the problem of race at massive public meetings, the NASA trio must deal with hostility and rank prejudice. Katherine (Taraji P Henson, strong) Goble’s white male colleagues assume she’s the peon, not a colleague. It is only the interventions of her white boss, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner, sensitive) that subsequently allow her into the inner sanctum, and even there, she is not spared the ignominy of being asked if she is a Russian spy.
Elsewhere at the workplace, manager Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is not given a suitable designation or wage. When IBM makes a foray into NASA, the smart woman realises the importance of data entry and steals a text book from the library when she is not allowed to borrow it like a white person would be. And Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) has to go to court to be allowed to study engineering!
It’s not as if things are hunky dory today in the USA. But Hidden Figures astutely unveils the segregation that prevailed back then: separate entrances, loos, refreshments. Seats at the rear of courtrooms, buses etc. Take note, gentle reader: the African-American experience is not unlike that of the Indian Dalit. Melfi ends the movie with factoids and photos of the real life trailblazers to showcase values of respect for human dignity.