Tuesday, March 14, 2017
Hidden Figures: a social justice film review
Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 120 plus films later, here is the review for March 2017.
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor
“Hidden Figures” offers important insights in how to fight for justice. The time is the 1960’s, the place is the South of the United States, the backdrop is the Cold War. “Hidden Figures” weaves together four stories, of three African-American women who help NASA in one race to space.
After a slow start, the movie hits the rocket burners, deserving Oscar nomination for Best Picture. With the race to space essential to US national identity, it is the mathematical brilliance of Katherine Johnson (played by Octavia Spencer) that will calculate the orbit of spacecraft Friendship 7. She will also re-confirm the mathematical figures for re-entry and touchdown that enable John Glenn (played by Glen Powell) to become the first American to orbit the earth. Such is the hidden skill that powered the American space race.
In the celebration of hidden talents, “Hidden Figures” also showcases the multiple ways by which oppressed minorities can stand for justice.
First, there is the public anger of Katherine Johnson. Publicly, powerfully, in front of her all white work colleagues, she names the reality of her lived workplace experience. She is direct, describing her mile long walk to a segregated bathroom. She is honest, exposing what is being hidden by the separate coffee machines. Katherine Johnson reminds us there are times for public anger.
Second, there are the skilful words of Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae). To train as an engineer, she needs changes in state law. She acts in ways polite and pragmatic, seeking a respectful leave of the court to remind the judge of his place in history. “Your honor, out of all the cases you gonna hear today, which one is gonna matter hundred years from now? Which one is gonna make you the first?” Mary Jackson reminds us there are times for skilful manouvering through individual and persuasive legal argument.
Third, there is the shrewd foresight of Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer). Aware of changing technology, she acquires from the library a book on how to programme the newly computer. Next she works with her colleagues, helping them upskill. Finally, she announces she will not offer her newly learnt and suddenly essential computer skills unless all her colleagues are employed with her. Dorothy Vaughan reminds us there are times for solidary, when sacrificial leaders act with shrewd foresight and then stand with and among those they lead.
Each of these women face injustice. Each find different ways to respond. Together they are a reminder of the diverse options available in the fight for justice.
Director Theodore Melfi skillfully weaves together these four stories of three women and one astronaut in the same workplace. Opening and closing scenes are essential. In the beginning, the three women are together, needing to overcome the obstacle of a broken-down car on the way to work at NASA.
In the end, the three women are apart. From different places they watch a single event, the return of John Glen to earth. The women have grown. Each one has have found unique ways to connect their inner courage with external action. Such is the power of “Hidden Figures.”