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With respect and dignity, 'Hidden Figures' triumphs

They couldn't use the "white" ladies room down the hall. When nature called, they had to run to the "colored" ladies room almost two blocks away.

They couldn't use the "white" drinking fountain either. Or the "white" coffee urn in the office. When a new black female calculator walked into the office of NASA scientists, mathematicians and engineers, she was given a "colored" coffee pot unfit for brewing anything non-toxic.

They couldn't take extension math courses at the all-white local high school either -- not unless they could petition Virginia courts to break all legal precedents and force their admission.

But in 1961, they were key to the burgeoning NASA space program anyway. And all the time, these human "computers" (their aptly prescriptive job description) were backing up everyone else's math to make sure that the lousy math of someone in a tie and a suit didn't send a heroic American astronaut into horror and oblivion.

Here, in the final waning minutes of the Obama Administration, you watch "Hidden Figures" in as much disbelief as outrage. And yet some of us indeed remember those times and knew -- distantly -- what a colossal affront to all dignity was life itself down South in black America. The simplest things in the world had become vicious denials of common humanity.

When, in this marvelous movie, Kevin Costner, as NASA's chief, finally takes a sledge hammer to the sign marked "Colored Ladies Room" and knocks it to kingdom come, you might wish that director Theodore Melfi had left about 10 empty seconds of screen time on the soundtrack for the audience to applaud at the screen and shout out their approval.

He didn't, to his credit. He's telling a story based on real happenings in the world, not making propaganda. At the same time, you can't imagine anything but happiness at the idea of school kids old enough seeing this movie.

The movie, just by telling its story with simple respect and dignity, is a triumph.

Yes, it's idealized but what the movie is saying is: This is really what happened. And do you ever need to know it.

What happened was this: In the early days of NASA's space program -- 1961 -- there was a squad of human "computers" who were black and female and worked at Langley, Va. Their status was obviously intended to be less than the office secretaries.

Some were ambitious. Some were prodigious -- brilliant by any possible assay. They had EXACTLY the kinds of minds that should have been applied to putting an American astronaut (which turned out to be John Glenn) into orbit.

But America, before the Civil Rights Movement, was almost unimaginably grotesque about rights and customs. Idiot systems of both denied rights of simple humanity itself to anyone of color, no matter who they were.

And then, as the movie makes subtly clear, add the fact that they're women who aren't expected to be dealing with equations in the office but rather full waste baskets.

These very real women couldn't possibly have deserved their own acclaim more for their pioneering work. The movie is co-written and directed by Melfi, who formerly gave us "St. Vincent" with Bill Murray.

Two of the stars of the movie -- Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer -- are fine, veteran actresses well-known for playing characters with no small amounts of fire and spice. But in this movie, they're mathematicians and engineers. They have growing kids and demanding lives along with their ambitions and their huge gifts. They need to pay attention to other things besides the life-or-death mathematical integrity of the space program. The IBM computer is just about to change the world but even so, they're crucial support staff.

Law and custom, nevertheless, dictated they be treated as an afterthought. As this movie tells the tale, Glenn, for one, knew better. When the seven original astronauts finally arrive to visit Langley, the movie shows us everyone lining up to meet the new American heroes.

All the white people line up in the first line of greeters. Then, after that, comes the black line of women "computers."

All the astronauts shake every white hand.

Glenn is the only one who moves over to the next line and starts shaking the black hands, kibitzing and smiling at the faces of the women his flight will so desperately need.

Is that EXACTLY how it all went down?

I don't know. I'm sure historians do. But it makes for a wonderful grace note in the movie.

Yes, the movie is idealized in its portrait of women who have undoubtedly been denied very ordinary human flaws and failings.

But then, so what? They're heroes, every one of them. Until now, American history has told us almost nothing about them. They were way back there in the books' appendices.

If this movie neglects to mention any flaws or ordinary human blemishes, I'm not going to argue for a second. It's a movie where they have their own big name star (Kevin Costner), one veteran and huge TV phenom (Henson) one Oscar winner (Spencer) and one pop music star (Janelle Monae.)

For all the airbrushing, it makes up a wittily entertaining, stirring and moving movie equivalent of a statue in the park.

And if you think I'm complaining, you're crazy.

If anyone deserves to finally be shown this way, it's these women.

And if ever there were a period in American history where we needed to be reminded of them, it's now.


“Hidden Figures”

3.5 stars (out of four)

Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons

Directed by: Theodore Melfi

Time: 127 minutes

Rated: PG for language


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