Saturday, 23 December 2017

Hidden Figures

From the openly ambiguous title, this film operates on a number of levels but there is a feeling that the Holywood filter distorts a great film which means it ends up only being good. It is filled with contrasts - the most obvious being the world of white Americans contrasted with the world of Black Americans. It also contrasts the privileges afforded to men and denied to women. It contrasts compliance against subversion of the institution in its many forms. It presents a victory for the myth that America is great when in many parts of the USA the reality of defeat means that little has actually changed in the intervening 50 years - more than that, segregation and apartheid have moved on to operate in new areas of hate and fear. The picture is little better here in Europe. So perhaps this film's greatest triumph is to issue a rallying call for our common humanity to rise up and unite in ways that our social constructs seem intent on denying us.

The majority of the film takes place in 1961/2 against the backdrop of the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement and of course the space race. The State of Virginia is a segregated State - except when an individual's intellect is of use to the government. The film is punctuated by close-ups of a black hand embracing a stick of white chalk to mark each time another chink is opened up in the armour of a society which has institutionalised racism. As three black women work for NASA in engineering, the early days of computing and calculating spacecraft trajectories, so they blaze a trail fuelled by the merit of their abilities which forces the establishment and the individuals within it to begin re-evaluating their innate racism and sexism.

Each of us is born into a situation that we take as being normative. As we grow and develop, the natural tendency is to conserve the status quo as that is what brought us into the world and nurtured our development. That's fine - until we are uncritical of the status quo and fail to explore where its flaws are and how we might seek to change them. Furthermore, we need to explore where our role within the social machine within which we exist, makes us complicit in perpetuating something that is not wholesome and life-giving. Social responsibility is a nuanced and awesome thing. Preserve all that is good and help to change for the better, that which is not. St Irenaeus is credited with saying "The glory of God is a human being fully alive" - a recontextualising of John 10:10? How can I, you, help the people we know, to be fully alive?

The acting performances from the three lead actors are immensely strong and engaging. The central character is Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) ably supported by Mary Jackson (Janelle MonĂ¡e) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer). Between them they challenge the white male dominated world and break down barriers not only in toilet provision and access to coffee, but also in having the foresight to enable NASA to properly exploit the potential of their first mainframe IBM computer. However, it still requires a human in the shape of Katherine Johnson to correct the computer's miscalculation of a critical point of the re-entry, to ensure a safe return for John Glenn's first US manned flight in space. Kevin Costner's Al Harrison is likeable but I felt the character to be almost a construct of convenience to enable the story to continue it's narrative development.

Whilst outlining what i think are the main themes, I've tried not to give too much away about the way in which the story plays out. This is a very human film with warmth, humour and a portrayal of an oppressed community biding its time until freedom comes. It seems that our collective ability to put human beings into space and to look beyond opens up new vistas of learning. I wonder if we should concentrate on learning lessons about things that should matter closer to home? This is a good film that offers plenty of scope for reflection on a number of issues. I have a feeling it might have been a great film if it had been handled differently. I'll give it 7/10.

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