Hidden Fences

An actor once told me, “There are two kinds of movies out there. The kind that tells people what they want to hear, and the kind that tells them what they need to know.”

Hidden Figures, the story of black women working at NASA at the beginning of the space program, is by all definitions, a crowd pleaser. We have our plucky heroines, who struggle against stiffer odds than they should have to, and succeed nonetheless. Their work sent John Glenn into orbit, and paved the way for the intrepid astronauts flying to the Moon, and then, low Earth orbit, all these years later.

The title, of course, comes from the fact that the work of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson has never been lauded as much as that of their white male colleagues.

But as I walked out of the theater, it seemed like part of the story was missing. Our heroines had proven their worth many times over. They had won the respect of their colleagues. Heck, Kevin Costner even invited Ms. Johnson into Mission Control for John Glenn’s launch.

So why had their contributions not been publicized?

I’m sure there’s more detail about all this in the book, written by Margot Lee Shetterly. Movies often just don’t have time. And besides, what we really want to hear is how these women overcame the odds and helped get America in space.

Historical movies always have to take liberties with the truth to tell their stories. Some more than others. Timelines are compressed, and characters composited. Real life is much more complicated and rarely follows a neat three–act structure.

But Dexter Thomas at VICE criticizes two of the film’s storylines which attempt to tell people what they want to hear.

The first is a subplot about Ms. Johnson having to use a colored women’s bathroom half a mile away from where she works. Later, Kevin Costner’s boss takes a crow bar to the sign above the offending bathroom, and assures the assembled staffers that “We all pee the same color.”

This didn’t actually happen– Ms. Johnson says she whichever bathroom was most convenient, and no one stopped her. This, to me, is forgivable, since it highlights some of the indignities created by Jim Crow laws in the South that might not have been apparent to people who weren’t affected by them.

But I see a missed opportunity at the end of the film, when Costner invites Ms. Johnson into Mission Control. This also didn’t happen, although John Glenn did ask for her to check the IBM’s calculations for his trajectory.

Consider: Katherine Johnson has solved her most difficult problem; cleared the last hurdle. What more potent visual metaphor for what actually happened to these women than for her to be locked out of the room where it happens at the most important moment.

It would suck, for us, the audience, definitely. I was reminded of Contact, when Jodie Foster’s character is told she can’t ride on the alien ship that’s only been built because of her work.[1] And of course, that wasn’t the end of the movie.

It’s a tricky thing, making the audience upset at what happens in the story, and not at the movie itself. Many people wouldn’t like it. I don’t know that we get catharsis from downer endings, as Aristotle insists.

But perhaps by tearing down the myth of history as an unending march of progress, that we’re a little better off at the end than we were at the beginning, we can reveal the barriers that these women

  1. [1] Then again, as she says, “They should have sent a poet.”
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