The other day, I re-blogged Sara Frykenberg’s post about the impossibility of debating “mutuality,” which I define as the mutual respect required to approach each and any “other” as a peer. The movie, Hidden Figures, starring Taraji Hensen, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe, offers an excellent alternative to debate. It pulls us into a visceral understanding of why we need to engage in mutuality.
There is lots going on in this film, based on a true story depicting the lives of several African American women who worked as mathematicians for NASA in the early sixties. Sounds a bit dull, right? Wrong. Director Theodore Melfi has produced a tight, beautifully crafted, suspenseful drama containing not a single unnecessary word, wasted shot, or insignificant gesture.
Like life, the movie contains layers of interrelated parallel realities. The importance of human beings relating personally with each other in any environment, no matter how functional or impressive it might be, is one of the movie’s underlying themes. The work at NASA, which fascinates and compels the main character, Katherine Gobel Johnson, is continually cradled in the larger, more important context of human relationship. At the end of this story the personal bond established between Katherine and her boss, Al Harris, allows him to make the judgement call that lets the mission successfully proceed.
The debilitating, insidious, toxic effects of racism have never been more aptly depicted than in this film. The director focuses here on small constant oppressions that bring home to the audience how chronically painful and tedious living under such circumstances really is and how it erodes the soul and spirit of all. Racism in neither the focus nor the by-product here – it is integrated into the fabric of the story the same way it was (and is) interwoven into the everyday life of ordinary Americans. The screen shows no mercy in demonstrating that “death by a thousand cuts” can be more cruel than outright murder. Yet the story ends happily with deft touches of humor throughout. It’s characters defy despair and achieve goals that let the audience walk out feeling proud and hopeful. My fellow movie-goers (the theater was packed) clapped spontaneously at the end – for a lesson they might otherwise have disdained. This is one measure, in my opinion, of great theater. It compels us to willingly watch, what we might normally turn from and avoid.
In spite of the exhilarating scene where Al Harris, the head of Katherine’s section, takes a sledgehammer to the sign over the women’s room designating it “colored,” it is obvious that this man, who lives only for his job, is primarily motivated by pragmatism. I am a huge proponent of pragmatism. It is the foundation stone of morality, ethics and idealism. Basically, things works better if we treat each other fairly and well. Kindness and mutual respect pay off in terms of profit, efficiency, industriousness, safety – the list is endless. Humankind’s best interests lie in making the world a place in which all talents, great and small, flourish and thrive to the benefit of all. It profits us to behave well. On the other hand, failure to practice this kind of enlightened self-interest results in long term failure as systems break down and chaos creeps in. The results are obvious. They surround us.
It’s one of the reasons we need feminism so much. This is another issue Hidden Figures addresses. Katherine Gobel Johnson is discriminated against not only because she is black, but also (double whammy here) because she is female. And OK, things have improved some since the sixties, but lots has gotten worse and the law still allows unequal pay for equal work by women. Women are still victimized, discriminated against, bullied, beaten, enslaved and oppressed. I watched this movie the day before the Women’s March. It was the perfect segue and made me even more determined and proud to stand with millions of feminists, men, women, and children, around the world.
Hidden Figures fills me with the excited, inspired rush of creativity excellent art so often engenders. An amazing thing about the creative process is that the good feeling it inspires lingers long after the work is complete or the show has ended. Several weeks later, I’m still feeling it.