By Esosa Omo- Usoh
If, for a black man, living in America is a constant struggle for access to opportunities and relevance because of institutional racism, it goes without saying that for a black woman; it is twice as worse because of institutional racism and patriarchy.
For all its pretensions of improved race relations and inclusiveness, the racist and patriarchal discriminations of the 50s and 60s America toward people of colour are still very much present in today’s America and even more so given the crest of wave the present occupant of the White House rode into office on.
Hidden Figures is set in the 60s when America was in a neck-to-neck race with the Russians to put a man into orbit knowing that the first to do so invariably wins the bragging rights in the patently patriarchal and metaphorical game of geopolitical penis measurement.
The race to space was as first world in its participating countries as it was largely patriarchal in the gender of those hitherto acknowledged as being involved in the race to first put man in space.
It was against this intimidating backdrop that 3 black women working in NASA’s space programme as mathematicians and engineer respectively in Virginia rose against all odds, especially racial and patriarchal, to contribute in no small way to the success of NASA’s bid to put a man in space.
The movie is based on a similarly titled non-fiction book and had in its starring roles Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughn and singer, Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson.
For a movie that dealt with issues as serious as race/patriarchy and the uncommon achievements by a trio of women least likely to be imagined capable of such achievements, Hidden Figures came off as rather reductive in its treatment of both its subject issues and protagonists.
Early on in the movie, a white police officer happens upon our protagonists on a lonely road trying to fix their broken down car. The officer goes into full racist mode in questioning them and almost immediately seems to shed his racist prejudice on finding out that they worked with NASA and proceeds to siren-escort them to work.
The speed with which this encounter with a racist police officer was resolved came off as too convenient and seemed to suggest that the officer and his racist prejudice were easily won over by the distinguished professional pedigree of the women. In real life, we know that the reverse would be the case.
Now, for women who had to be highly intelligent to work in a predominantly white male dominated field, one would expect that our trio protagonists are cut from a cloth different from that of the stereotyped African American woman typically favoured by Hollywood.
Whilst not saying they were portrayed in the typical shtick of the finger-snapping and eyeball-rolling African American woman generically named Shaniqua, you could, however, see traces of the stereotype in the hint of ebonics in their speech, the “uhh hmm” mannerisms and the “That Colonel Jim’s a tall glass of water” oogling.
These attributes, in my opinion, feed into that racist stereotype perception of the African American man or woman as being of an unflattering generic behavioural disposition irrespective of their educational or social background.
The decidedly comedic bent to the scenes where Taraji P. Henson’s Katherine Johnson had to make hurried trips to a segregated toilet blocks away from her office and the rather up beat soundtrack that trailed the scenes not only made light of the seriousness of the subject of racist segregation but seemed, in my view, reductive (if not insulting) of her dehumanization.
But no scene was more reductive of the racism theme of the movie than the one in which Kevin Costner’s character knocks down a segregated bathroom sign and declares with superior moral aplomb “At NASA, we all pee the same colour”.
Two things irked me about this scene. Firstly, its suggestive inference that Costner’s character (a white man) was unaware of the incidents of racism in NASA (and perhaps in the larger American society), and him getting to claim the moral high ground by destroying a symbol of the institutional racism in NASA.
This, in my view, not only tended to give white folk a slap on the wrist over the racist policies instituted by them, but more importantly; seemed to credit them for the move to desegregate.
Secondly, the reaction of Taraji P. Henson’s character to Kevin Costner bringing down the sign. Prior to that scene, she had gone off on a rant at him with all the righteous indignation she could muster when he enquired where she always went off to.
Now, for a woman who was bold enough (and justifiably too) to tell off her boss for being insensitive to her dehumanization by a racist company policy, her almost swooning reaction to Costner destroying the sign was not just a betrayal of her righteous anger but a humiliating concession of the moral high ground she was entitled to.
Prior to seeing the movie, I had read and heard of rave reviews about it and the performances of its stars. I had even read the adjective “stellar” used in describing the performances of its stars.
Having seen the movie, I am reluctant to be that effusive in praise of it. This, however, is not meant to detract from the merit of the movie and the performances of its stars.
It’s just that I found nothing spectacular or stellar about the movie or the performances of its stars. I found the performances of the trio protagonists safe, typical and one they could have delivered on any given day without breaking a sweat.
As the end credits rolled, I got the sense that what I found more intriguing and inspiring about Hidden Figures was not the movie or the performances but the sense of the real life story that inspired the movie.
To put this in perspective, the Queen of Katwe was also a movie inspired by a true life story. But as the end credits roll (to be honest, you get that feeling very early on in the movie), you feel so thoroughly inspired and entertained not by the fact that it was inspired by a true life story but by the stellar and inspiring performances of LupitaNyong’o, David Oyelowo and MadinaNalwanga.
In that instance, the fact that the movie was inspired by a true life story is secondary and merely incidental to your enjoyment of the movie. The primary thing that drives your emotions about the Queen of Katwe is the performances of its stars.
The opposite was the case with me for Hidden Figures. I found the treatment of the serious themes almost disappointingly reductive, and, in the event that the scene where Kevin Costner destroyed the segregated bathroom sign did not happen in real life; revisionist.
Hidden Figures was a feel good movie about a serious theme that, in my view, was undeserving of the simplicity with which it was treated. In the end, it leaves you (or more appropriately; that’s how I felt) inspired not really by the movie itself but by the real life story that inspired it.