Recently I saw a hilarious trailer for this film where an obviously intelligent woman with glasses was being interrogated by a bureaucrat played ably by Kevin Costner where she had to defend herself against accusations that she was a Russian spy, and her incontrovertible defense was that she was obviously not Russian. The absurd humor of that situation is what led me to watch this film when I got off before noon on Friday, combined with a sense of duty about watching a historical film about one of my favorite aspects of American history during the 1960’s, namely the Space Program. I grew up in Central Florida watching space shuttle launches from our yard, and to this day I enjoy reading and writing about space travel . It seemed like an obvious choice for one of my more unusual interests, and as I enjoy seeing good historical films, I feel it necessary to support what I think will be good in the hope that more such films will be made.
Watching this film was a bit of an uncomfortable experience for me. This will take some explaining. Among the more uncomfortable elements of this film was the fact that both its racial and gender politics were pretty heavy handed. A great deal of nervous laughter could be heard (quite a bit of it from me) from the very awkwardness about race and gender that were loaded into the film. At the core of this story are three black women working for NASA at Langley in Virginia, all of them played ably by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and singer Janelle Monáe. All of them are ambitious to rise above their status as second or third-class citizens, and all of them face some strong pressures in their personal and professional lives. One is a widow with three adorable ragamuffin daughters who happens to be an immensely able calculator, one is a matronly woman who acts as a supervisor to a pool of black workers but without the position or pay, and one is a bright and driven woman who wants to become an engineer but finds herself stymied. Over and over again these women face disrespect from others, including a particularly awkward first attempt at a romance from a black national guard colonel with Katherine (the lead among relative equals), painfully funny experiences of Katherine having to run half a mile to the nearest colored bathroom so that she is viewed as being frequently absent from her desk by her irritated boss (played by Kevin Costner in one of his best roles ever), a tense scene near the beginning where the three black women overcome the threat of being arrested by a sheriff’s deputy and end up getting an escort to base after having car trouble, and a court experience where our would-be engineer has to sue for the right to attend night classes in engineering and ends up charming the judge through her awareness of his desire to make his place in history. John Glenn is portrayed here as being almost a natural politician, the only astronaut chatting up the black employees in a segregated welcoming celebration, and one whose confidence in Katherine’s calculating skills ensures her job security in the face of technological replacement. There is a lot going on in this film, and its racial and gender politics are not in any way subtle. Over and over again the film hits you with the awkwardness caused by mixed messages about racism and sexism on the one hand and the desire for meritocracy and shared success on the other.
And to an unexpected degree for a white man watching this film about black women, the awkwardness was easy enough for me to understand for my own reasons. This film celebrates nerds. The main characters in their way are all nerds, and I mean that in the best possible way. The would-be engineer sues for her right to attend engineering classes which are only offered at the all-white Hampton High School. The matronly supervisor teachers herself (and her black employees) FORTRAN so that they can insure job security with the arrival of a new IBM computer, and Katherine uses her adept knowledge of mathematics to solve a seemingly impossible problem about changing from an elliptical orbit around the earth to a parabolic descent to earth through Euler’s approximation method. You have to be a nerd, almost, to understand what this film is getting at, where mathematics has life and death importance. As someone who spends my life dealing with numbers and data and calculations, I felt that the characters (all taken from reality here) were fellow members of my tribe, despite our differences. Besides this, though, I felt the awkwardness of the characters on a personal level as well. This film features a lot of tense moments of awkward interactions, where the characters try to use their charisma and intellect to overcome obvious disadvantages, and where there are a lot of awkward pauses and clumsiness as people are hyperaware of the way that they are out of place and having all of their behavior scrutinized. This film is full of the pressure of people trying to live according to their own dreams while also feeling as if they are representing a larger group of people, feeling uncomfortable and trying to lower the stress and tension that threatens to overwhelm them while they serve the country they love even if it does not treat them justly. This is a heady mix of stress and pressure, of duty and loyalty in the face of personal frustration and awkwardness that I understand all too painfully well.
Given the fact that the film is pretty heavy-handed in its approach, is it any good? Absolutely, yes. For those people who are concerned about the Oscars being so white, this is the way that the Oscars become less white, with excellent films that, like the people portrayed in this film, can be praised on their own efforts. This is a film that lives up to its noble and difficult advice, fighting hard for the opportunity to be accepted on its own merits, and making it unmistakably clear that there are injustices and wrongs in society to be righted. This is a film that simultaneously earns and demands respect from its audience, and whether that respect is given cheerfully or grudgingly is left to the audience just as it is left to the supporting characters of this stellar cast. Ultimately, this film manages to present institutional success in marriage as well as NASA through giving respect and honor where it is due, showing a perspective that does not insult or demean men or whites, which would be the obvious concern most viewers of this film would likely have. Besides the three leads, praise must be given to supporting actors Jim Parsons (who plays a socially awkward nerd like his character on Big Bang Theory) and Kirsten Dunst (who plays a female supervisor who thinks herself more racially advanced than she is, a stand-in, presumably, for this film’s white audience). This is a film that will get a lot of awards, will deserve them, and will be a film worth appreciating for a long time to come, as long as people dream of traveling to the stars and trying to rise above the limitations of our backgrounds.
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