The Parable of the Hidden Figures

I thoroughly enjoyed the movie Hidden Figures. I thought I’d state that outright before I got into my detailed discussion of it. (Otherwise known as “SJ can’t watch a movie without completely picking it apart.”) (I’m a terrible movie date.) (But I don’t give spoilers.) (And DJ still loves me anyway.)

Hidden Figures is a parable for white people.

Granted, it’s based on black people’s experiences. Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary were all actual black women who achieved success in the halls of NASA, which in the 60s was simply clogged with white males. The reason I say it’s a parable — a fictionalized story meant to illuminate truth — is because the movie shows what ought to happen rather than a strict adherence to what probably really did.

The black community knows exactly what life was like in the early 60s. They don’t have to be reminded of segregation, demonstrations, violence against them, and the quiet but suffocating refusal to allow black professionals to advance in their careers. The white community is the one who needs to see it and feel the futility and injustice. This movie does that. By giving the viewers three good women to sympathize with, we “become” those women and understand the obstacles they faced. This is the power of fiction.

But, being a Hollywood parable, we get the advantage of seeing it play out before our eyes. The entire movie takes place over a period of about two years. In theater time, of course, that’s about two hours. So in two hours we get to see these women pursue their dreams, demonstrate their capabilities, and win the respect of those around them. I’m not saying it didn’t happen. Just that the results weren’t so gratifyingly immediate.

Another “parable” aspect was that the movie showed several white characters who saw their error and paid due respect to their black colleagues. It made the movie easier to watch for those of us who have a sneaking fear that we would have upheld that system had we lived then. The white community of that time, while definitely top-dog, was also under pressure. They lived under the regime of a segment of society that truly despised anyone who wasn’t white; for the ordinary, peace-loving person, it was a risk to cross racial lines.

So really, the white response in that movie was much more mid-21st century than mid-20th. And while it’s not exact history, I think it was a good way to show how we today ought to respond.

(Another 2010s vs 1960s aspect of the movie was that nobody smoked. In reality, you probably couldn’t walk into any of those offices, men’s or women’s or white or colored, without forcing your way through the smog of cigarette smoke.)

All that said, I truly enjoyed the movie.

It follows the storylines of the three women, all with different ambitions. Dorothy wants the title and pay that comes with the supervisor job she’s already doing. Mary wants to become an engineer, a near-impossibility for a negro woman in segregated Virginia. Katherine — who is really the focal character — is a brilliant mathematician assigned to calculate the numbers that will get John Glenn into space.

Apart from the story, the movie is visually fun to watch. They recreated the 60s in good Hollywood style. The dresses, hair, decor (all that ugly dark paneling!), and technology looks just right. Which probably just means that it looks like what I vaguely remember of “old lady houses” and other Hollywood sets, but anyway.

The family life is portrayed as warm, with young black men who want the very best for their wives and children. Religion is present, acknowledged but not overdone. The pale colors of the surrounding set often highlighted the brown skin of the women. A few camera shots managed to communicate, “Look at aaalll these men! White men! It doesn’t look quite right, does it?”

It’s easy to see the frustrations these women faced at work, from Dorothy’s sweet but chilly white superior, to Mary’s sassy fashionista facade covering her stifled ambition, to Katherine’s half-mile hike to the Colored Bathroom every day. (The director is furious when he finds out her plight. “At NASA, we all pee the same color!” is one of the best declarations of equality in the movie.)

The story touches only lightly on the oppression, violence, and injustice of the era. And I think that some people were happy to ignore that reality yet again. I saw one comment about the movie that said,

“Those women were facing real issues. But they were faithful and stayed on task, and presto! It all worked out.”

No, honey. The “presto” part is because this movie isn’t history, it’s a parable. If you come away thinking that they had it “kind of bad,” then you need to do a little research. Ever browsed photos of of riots, attacks, and black men hanging from trees? They had it “kind of bad” in the same way that cancer makes you “a little sick.”

These women were extraordinary, and it leaves me wondering how many more black men, black women, and simply women in general, didn’t manage to break through with their gifts and abilities. It was a time of smothering injustice, and it’s not all resolved yet. I hope this movie, with its funny moments and gentle indictment of white superiority, can inspire the white community to understand and acknowledge the wrongs of the past, and show them a way to amend the wrongs of the present.

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One thought on “The Parable of the Hidden Figures

  1. Yeah, you articulate the film well. I loved Hidden Figures, I feel like Hidden Figures, the Help, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner should be required watching for American history classes–as important as the Amistad. I came away from the film hoping, rather than believing, that the director had really done something similar for Katherine. And also hoping that I would do the same given the chance.

    Like

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