Hidden Figures is the recent movie highlighting the contributions of three black women – Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson – to the success of the 1960s space race between the United States and Russia.  Set in an American South still dominated by Jim Crow, the movie contrasts the fight of three black women for basic human rights with the efforts of white men to put a man in space.  It is a powerful and entertaining movie deserving of its nomination for Best Picture. However, in the midst of all of its acclaim, I worry many white men will leave the theatre unaware of its hidden messages.

I might have missed many of them if I hadn’t attended a theatre filled with black women and their daughters, obviously excited about this story.  Watching the movie with them was like watching a movie with emotional commentary.   They reacted with gasps, shouts, tears and cheers.  At other points, the theatre was completely silent.  As I listened to their responses, they helped me notice things I might not have seen if I’d watched the movie at home.  Here are four of the more subtle messages of the movie…

  • White Men Have Systematically Resisted, Diminished and Taken Credit For The Accomplishments of Others…and Continue To Do So.

This is not a feel good movie about white men. Indeed, if white men aren’t embarrassed after watching this movie, they aren’t paying attention.  White men are the villains – and not the heroes – in this story.  Unfortunately many white men will see this as a movie about white men in the 1960s.  It is not.  It is a movie about white men today.

The real scandal of this movie isn’t what white men did back then, but what white men continue to do in our politics, our media and our cultural narrative. White male movie executives ignored this story for fifty years.  White men celebrated the accomplishments of John Glenn, taught of his heroic flight and never mentioned that without Katherine Johnson he might have died in space.  That it took fifty years for a white, male dominated society to acknowledge the contributions of these women is an indictment of our culture today.

  • Sexism and Racism Have and Continue To Diminish Human Society

Sexism and racism damage everyone, including the men who perpetuate them. In excluding women and people of color, human society has lost the creativity, brilliance and potential advancements of thousands of men and women.  How many Einsteins were wasted because being white and male was considered necessary for genius?  How many are being ignored today because we don’t give them the opportunity to excel?  When we value the color of someone’s skin more than the brilliance of their mind, society is diminished.

Many white men continue to act as if the world is a better place when they are in power. They claim that they alone can fix the ills of our society. This is a dangerous lie.   Any noble human endeavor will require the best people working together, regardless of their gender or color.  Any institution that is primarily white and male is a less competent and capable institution.

  • Intelligence Does Not Prevent Racism or Sexism

Some of most brilliant mathematicians and engineers in the world required Katherine Johnson – the only black person in the think tank – to drink from a separate coffee urn. Think about that.  These were some of the most educated and intelligent white men in the United States, but they were too small minded to see their own racism and sexism.  While white men watching this movie today will see the absurdity of their actions, most will leave the theatre convinced of their own enlightenment.

We shouldn’t forget that the men in the movie are our fathers and grandfathers. They are the ones we watched. They are the ones who taught us how to treat women and people of color.  Even the best of them were enculturated to see people of color and women as inferior.  Do we really think we’ve escaped their influence?  If we are smart as we think, we will acknowledge that the seeds of the racism and sexism were planted deeply in us.

  • Eliminating Blatant Racism Does Not Eliminate Racism

In the movie, a white NASA administrator destroys a “Colored Restroom” sign and desegregates the administration building. As admirable as his action seems, the removing of the signs didn’t end racism – then or now.  Indeed, the signs made the racism obvious.   Today, we’ve removed all the signs, but largely kept the systems of exclusion and oppression in place.  In some ways, this actually makes it harder on women and people of color as they try to excel in our white, male dominated institutions.

In the 1960s, those women knew where the problem was. The problem was with white men. The obstacles were obvious and blatantly placed in their way.  When women or people of color struggle today, they often think the fault lies with them instead of with systemic racism and sexism.  The rise of a few women and people of color to places of high position or power gives the impression that the system is fair.  In actuality, as most women and people of color know, the system only allows them to rise when they work twice as hard.

Sadly, when it comes to both space and race, American attitudes have taken a similar trajectory. The 1960s was a time of high idealism and commitment in both arenas. We wanted to send a man to the moon.  We wanted to create a more equitable society.  Unfortunately, we seem to have lost our passion for both space and race, to have created a society where both science and sociology are under attack.  In both arenas, we replaced idealism with apathy or even hostility.

While Hidden Figures suggests our society has made some progress, it also exposes how far we have to go.  That stories of heroic women and people of color are so rarely highlighted should deeply concern us.  Everyone knows of John Glenn, the first American in space.  Before this movie, hardly anyone knew of Kathryn Johnson, the black woman whose mathematical genius made is possible for him to survive that flight. Hidden Figures is the first of what I hope are many movies rectifying such omissions and exposing the hidden racism and sexism in America today.

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2 thoughts on “Hidden Messages

  1. Excellent article, as always, Jim. Thank you. When the movie came out, I wondered why I had never heard of these three women until now. I was alive then and no one made mention, which is no surprise. Racism and sexism seem together to be one side of the coin of our society. Thanks again for this article.

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