Saturday, May 13, 2017

Beyond the hidden figures



My wife, Linda, and I don’t go to movie theaters very much anymore. It’s just so nice to pop in a Netflix movie, enjoy our own snacks and hit the pause button whenever we need to take a bathroom break.
The last multiplex movie we saw was “FlorenceFoster Jenkins,” which Linda liked but I hated. Just a no-talent, off-key wannabe singer with enough money to surround herself with a bunch of yes men. Sort of like the bilious-orange off-key wannabe dictator we have in the White House right now.
But that’s another story. What I want to write about now is “Hidden Figures,” the movie we finally saw, thanks to Netflix, a couple of nights ago.
We both enjoyed this film immensely. In the remote chance that you haven’t seen or heard of it, the movie is based on the true story of African American female mathematicians who helped NASA get its astronauts off the ground during the Space Race.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I am about as much a mathematician as Florence Foster Jenkins was a singer. And yet, this movie grabbed me and wouldn’t let go, from beginning to end.
I especially liked Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, who calculated flight trajectories – where space capsules would go up and, most importantly, come down for Project Mercury and other missions.   
The year was 1961. The Russians had beaten America into space. And Jim Crow laws were firmly in place. Katherine becomes the first African American woman on the Space Task Group, and the first in the building, which has no bathrooms for non-white people.
This means that Katherine must dash about half a mile  to the nearest “Colored Bathroom,” taking an armload of books so she can keep up with her work while she does her business.
One day, after getting caught in a rainstorm during her bathroom run, she is confronted by her supervisor, Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner. Harrison demands to know where she goes when she’s away from her desk, and Katherine, soaking wet from the rainstorm, angrily explains how far she has to go to use the colored people’s bathroom.
Harrison, totally oblivious of the bathroom restriction until now, abolishes the practice, using an ax to knock down the “Colored Bathroom” sign.
Octavia Spencer was nominated for an Oscar for her role as Dorothy Vaughan, and I suppose she deserved it. But if life were fair, Taraji P.  Henson would have gotten an Oscar nomination too. She deserved it more than Meryl Streep, a good singer in her own right who showed that she could sing off-key as Florence Foster Jenkins.
But if life were fair, we wouldn’t be saddled with an off-key president who seems hell-bent on destroying our republic. We desperately need some mathematicians to help us escape from this dangerous orbit we're in.
Or maybe, some brave congressmen who are willing to knock down the "Party First" sign for the sake of our nation.

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