Space, race and America

THE Current Mrs Feeney was delighted with our choice of film for this week’s afternoon trip to the cinema. Hidden Figures has Kevin Costner in it. TCMrsF has been very fond of Mr Costner since she saw him dancing with wolves back in the 1990s. The passing of two decades has done nothing to diminish her feelings.

So along we went on Friday. We were a little earlier than usual – not even the adverts had started. For a moment, I thought we’d hit the jackpot, and had the entire auditorium (if that’s not too grand a word, now that the average multiscreen room is not much bigger than a millionaire’s bathroom) to ourselves.

I maintained this happy (if admittedly antisocial) delusion until I spotted the chap in the third row from the front, slumped so low in his standard seat (no point paying extra for premium seats when you can sit anywhere you like in these afternoon screenings) that he was practically lying down, with his legs folded up so that his knees were resting on his chest. I reckon his back will pay for that when he’s older.

Anyway, about another dozen people arrived by the time the trailers were finished and the film began. So, pretty much par for the course.

TAKEOFF: Mercury-Redstone rocket Freedom 7 launches the first US astronaut into space in 1961.
TAKEOFF: Mercury-Redstone rocket Freedom 7 launches the first US astronaut into space in 1961.

We enjoyed the film very much. It has two big themes – the 1960s space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the civil rights movement led by the likes of the Reverend Martin Luther King.

And then it throws in a third theme; the struggle by feminists to achieve equality of opportunity and reward for working women.

The director weaves them all together by telling the true (well, true-ish; ‘based on real events’ as they say) stories of three brilliant black female mathematicians working for NASA.

HATRED: A Freedom Rider bus goes up in flames in 1961 after a fire bomb was thrown through the window.
HATRED: A Freedom Rider bus goes up in flames in 1961 after a fire bomb was thrown through the window.

While they are employed by the US Government on its space programme, they are confined to a segregated, coloureds-only wing of the agency’s HQ in Virginia. The daily racism that Katherine, Dorothy and Mary encounter is not brutal or violent (unlike the fate of the Freedom Riders that we see on a TV news programme watched by Mary’s civil rights activist husband); nobody gets beaten, shot or lynched.

It is, however, both pervasive and pernicious. It severely limits their lives through the white population’s institutionalised acceptance that coloured people are simply inferior. Hence, they cannot work in the same room as white people, even when they are doing the same job; or eat in the same canteen, or drink out of the same coffee pot, or even pee in the same toilet bowl.

WOMEN'S RIGHTS: protestors campaigning for equality in the workplace for female workers.
WOMEN’S RIGHTS: protestors campaigning for equality in the workplace for female workers.

There is a plotline about NASA’s segregated bathrooms running (literally) through the film, as Katherine has to make a half-mile dash twice a day to relieve herself in the toilet in the coloureds-only wing. There are one or two too many of these moments, even if it culminates in Katherine making a fine speech about her co-workers’ blindness to the racism around them.

Her denunciation of their prejudice is immediately followed by her white boss (Costner) taking a sledge hammer to the ‘coloureds only’ sign over the toilet door, and declaring that in NASA everybody pees the same colour.

The three main parts are really well acted, and the actresses playing them gel into an ensemble that is even greater than the individual parts.

Despite the weighty subject matter, the film has a delicate touch that ensures that it entertains. There are moments of Hollywood schmaltz that may play well in America, but could have more cynical British audiences reaching for the sick bucket.

But no matter. TCMrsF and I came away entertained, and feeling that we had learned something (despite the historical inaccuracies) about a story that neither of us had known previously. Hidden figures of recent history, indeed.

Retired Bloke Rating: **** Good way to spend an afternoon.

images-3Here’s the film buff stuff

Hidden Figures: Oscar nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture, and Best Supporting Actress.

Director: Theodore Melfi (Debut film St Vincent in 2014)

Cast:

  • Taraji P. Henson (Katherine Johnson). She was Oscar nominated for Best Supporting Actress for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2008.
  • Octavia Spencer (Dorothy Vaughan). Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA Best Supporting Actress winner in 2011 for The Help; she is Oscar nominated again for Hidden Figures.
  • Janelle Monáe (Mary Jackson). She is also in Moonlight on current cinema release in the UK.
  • Kevin Costner (Al Harrison). Won Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for Dances With Wolves in 1990.
  • Kirsten Dunst (Vivian Mitchell). Played Mary Jane Watson in three Spiderman movies. On our tv screens more recently as the neurotic hairdresser Peggy Blomquist in the second series of Fargo.
  • Jim Parsons (Paul Stafford). Best known as Sheldon in the very successful Big Bang Theory on tv.
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