Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens NY

Math was probably as intimidating to me as it was to most people in high school. I remember taking pre-Calculus in my freshman year because I actually did fairly well in math in junior high. This, however, was entirely different. I don't remember a thing I learned in the class. I struggled with it the entire semester. I don't know how I passed with a 65 but I did, and once I was done, I never wanted to see it again. To this day, I don't know why I had to take that class.

When I was an upperclassman, I had a scheduling snafu one semester and I was stuck in a class called Computer Math. It might have been the first class in which I used a computer (it was probably a Mac), but it was a remedial course. I clearly didn't belong, but as much as I tried, I couldn't get out, so I made the best of it. The teacher knew I didn't belong there, too, and was sympathetic. There was even a cute girl I helped out within the class. All things considered, I didn't have too bad a time there.

Basic math is easy once you grasp it, but the really tough stuff, the material involving square roots and fractions and letters, well, that requires an exceptional level of intelligence. I mean, I have to have a chart taped to the inside of my kitchen cabinet to remind me of measurements and half-measurements. There's no way I could nail down all those fancy algebraic equations.

For a long time, those who can were mocked as nerds. That's changing, though; we're starting to see more stories, across multiple media, in which that kind of intelligence is well-regarded, even glamorized, to an extent.

Hidden Figures is the latest example, and it is particularly noteworthy because it involves black people, black women, to be precise. It's the true story of a trio of mathematicians who were instrumental in helping put the late John Glenn into outer space during the height of the Cold War.

Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson are not presented here as what you might call "nerds." The movie, in fact, goes to great lengths to present them as ordinary women in spite of their great skill with numbers, albeit women who had to live with institutional racism on a daily basis, like all black Americans in the early 60s.

The whole nerd stereotype almost never included black people when I was growing up, except perhaps for Urkel from Family Matters. That never bothered me back then. Nerds were uncool, after all. During my years in the comics industry, I met a number of black creators and fans who probably wouldn't object to the term now, not because they're exceptionally intelligent, but because of a change in the zeitgeist.

As a result, though, I became a little more aware whenever I saw an above-average smart black person in the movies, especially when race wasn't a factor. The Martian had one, for a recent example. Joe Morton in Terminator 2 is another one. The character Theo in Die Hard is yet another. In addition, someone like Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a surprisingly popular real-life figure.

As a movie, Figures was pretty conventional and by-the-numbers. It was easy to figure out what would happen and how, and once again this was a movie in which the editor had way too much of a free hand. That doesn't matter as much, though, as the subject. Knowing these super-smart black women existed, and made a difference, is more important. Now they, too, are part of the cultural zeitgeist.

Vija came out to Kew Gardens in the snow to see this with me, although we had gotten all the white stuff the previous day, a Saturday. By Sunday, the roads had been cleared pretty good and the trains had no abnormal delays (relatively speaking, of course). The Kew wasn't nearly as crowded as it was the last time I went there for a Sunday matinee, to see Manchester by the Sea, but by the time Figures ended, the lobby was much busier, so I guess the weather wasn't much of a deterrent.


  1. It appears to be the sort of movie that will take you where you need to be, and sometimes that is all it has to do. Looking forward to it, whether it is on the big screen or not, only time will tell.

    Math! I flunked calculator!

  2. As a kid, I had a calculator that could compute square roots. Sometimes I'd do it just to see what kinds crazy numbers it would come up with - not that I understood how it came up with those numbers. Mostly I liked trying to turn numbers into words by holding the calculator upside down. 3704 becomes "hole," for instance.

  3. I remember being blown away when I realized that you could spell LOS LOBOS upside down on a calculator--the movie La Bamba was popular at the time. :)

    Can't wait to see Hidden Figures finally...probably this weekend.

  4. Hmm... 50807 507? Not the same when you do it on a cell phone. :-p

    One day I should write about LA BAMBA. That ending always kills me. I had the soundtrack on cassette tape.