The movie “Hidden Figures” depicts the true life story of three charismatic black women who worked for NASA as the first seven astronauts were just beginning to venture into space. It is something of a time capsule chronicling the turbulent times associated with the ending of legal, if not actual, segregation along with the passionate national effort to develop manned space flight at the height of the cold war.
A group of exclusively black females with surprising mathematical skills are under-utilized to laboriously check and re-check manual calculations initially created by engineers. These exhausting exercises were deemed necessary for the safety of manned flight considering the error prone proclivities of slide rules and desktop mechanical calculators, which were the best tools of the age.
Interestingly such workers, to include those who prepared mathematical tables of all kinds, were uniformly called “computers.” Unfortunately as the technology explosively improved, especially with the advent of the first practical IBM mainframes, their jobs along with all their black co-workers were on the verge of being eliminated.
With uncommon intelligence and quiet determination, all three strive to overcome not only the threat of becoming technologically obsolete but also the overt racial prejudice which raised obstacle after frustrating obstacle to their advancement. Fortunately for all concerned, their struggle coincided with the patriotic intensity of the space race which swept away lesser concerns of outdated social convention when it impeded efficiency in the NASA workplace. In heartwarming triumph, the women manage to translate their well honed skills into a better mastery of the new technology than those less well tested and less well motivated.
That the story line takes dramatic liberties, in perhaps falsely suggesting the uniqueness of their skills and contributions, is a difficult criticism to make given the undeniably unfair denigration of all their work by white society at large.
What makes these three black women so special was not only their unheralded contribution to America’s race to space but also their strength of character exemplified by good manners, family values, and moral strength. In short, they were not only smart and hard working but good and decent human beings who found strength in family and their religious community.
What makes the move so special is the all too rare depiction of a black family and community which celebrates classical American virtues rather than wallowing in self pity and unavailing anger and offering, even well justified, excuses for failure.
These wonderfully talented black women achieved equality, and even a special well-deserved acclaim, the old-fashioned way. They earned it. And as such the movie is a shining beacon of hope and a role model for success for all downtrodden people everywhere. But lest we become too smug and self-satisfied in the feel good state of mind, it is also a clarion call for the rest of us to clean up our act and to stop disrespecting deserving people whenever and wherever we find them. God bless America.