Wednesday, 12 September 2018


I finally saw Hidden Numbers, and liked it a good deal. What is best about it is the way it reinforces the pain of the world of segregation with the same under-stated sense of daily living that those who lived with it experienced. We see clearly not only the ever-present fear, of stepping out of line, the constant de-humanizing by relegating people to second-class status, but also the debilitating effect Jim Crow had on the white people imposing it on their fellow citizens, the way they take their privilege for granted, recoil at the slightest stepping over that (usually) unseen line, and at the same time think of themselves as friendly, decent Christian people.

We saw this first-hand when I was an 11-year old kid and we took our first-ever family vacation to Washington DC and encountered segregated facilities at, of all places, the Washington Monument. Washington himself was a slave-holder, of course, but I didn't make the connection then. I asked my dad to explain 'whites only', and then asked 'but that's wrong, isn't it?' and when he said, 'yes it is but that is how they do things down here' he got cold-eyed by some guy, who I guess backed down from taking his racist grievance any further.

That is the strong point of the film, established from the start by contrasting the easy camaraderie between the three friends and the unspoken fear when a white state police officer stops to investigate their broken-down car. The power relationship is set from the start. This marks the subtly of the approach, culminating in the moment Katharine Johnson's confirmation of the figures John Glenn wants her to confirm before he will head into space are delivered, and then the door closes in her face. Glenn's character is an exemplar here: early on he extends himself to greet the Langley black women;  he is the first to accept Johnson for her talent, but he's also shown as a complete team player all through his launch into space.

All three of the leads are good, if perhaps a little too glamorous in their 60s retro looks, with Taraji P Henson exceptional as Johnson, whose math genius is essential to NASA's success. Kevin Costner's beneficent white man isn't too overdone--I wondered if his one-man integration of the ladies' rest rooms wasn't still unlawful in Virginia, and why it wasn't reported. It seems odd that neither Costner nor his scientists would have any idea of what an IBM computer was; I probably did and I was 10 years old. It was also interesting that the filmmaker's show an engineer who's a Polish-Jewish immigrant survivor of the Holocaust, but never mention Werner Von Braun, head of the space programme, whose V2 rockets were built with Nazi slave labour. But overall, it's a sort of Disneyfied version of the story, but not simplified like some of their sports films, and told, as I suggested, with restraint that parallels the restraint of its principals.

But one non-racial flaw jumped out at me, so important it's not just a quibble. Katharine Johnson's task was to calculate the 'go/no-go' point for Glenn's Friendship 7 capsule to re-enter the earth's atmosphere. The angle of this departure from its elliptical orbit needed to be perfect: a little too much and the capsule is incinerated by the heat of re-entry, too little and it goes off into space, outside earth's gravity forever. This gets hammered into our consciousness repeated. So why then does the movie make the go/nogo moment occur long after Glenn has re-entered earth's atmosphere and survived the intense heat, as if it was an instant before releasing his parachute? This is such a major error, so obvious, and also loses the drama of hitting the go/no go precisely. Do they think we weren't paying attention to the science stuff? Or weren't they? Baffling.

It also appeared to me that Kevin Costner was both in the Langley labs and mission control in Florida at the same time, but movie stars can do anything. Maybe he found his own go/no go point. But what sticks out about this movie is the way it delineates the way people were forced to cope with an unjust system of institutionalized bigotry, and not just cope with it, but triumph within that broken system. That it is telling the story of these three real women makes it all the more successful.

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