Photographer: Kevork Djansezian/WireImage

The Best Picture for What America Needs Right Now

Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was the editor of Reason magazine and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the New York Times and Forbes. Her books include “The Power of Glamour” and “The Future and Its Enemies.”
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"Hidden Figures" pulled off a surprise victory at the Screen Actors Guild awards Sunday night, making it the most serious challenger to Oscar favorite "La La Land" for best picture.

An enjoyable if overpraised musical, "La La Land" is the sort of Hollywood tale Academy voters love. But "Hidden Figures," a drama about three black women working as NASA mathematicians in the early days of the space race, has an edge of its own. It’s a movie for anxious times, offering  patriotic balm for the fractured body politic and even throwing in a tale of career resilience in the face of automation.

Cultures are held together by the stories they tell about themselves, and America is struggling to find a new national story, one that can acknowledge past injustices without becoming defined by them. The old all-or-nothing morality tale of Good America has too often been superseded by an all-or-nothing morality tale of Evil America, which proclaims that every apparently positive accomplishment disguises a sadistic reality. American industry despoiled the earth, the great universities were built on slave labor, the land itself was stolen. “Just occurred to me that Trump praised a slave owner in his black history month remarks,” Salon political writer Simon Maloy tweeted on Wednesday. That’s the current line on Thomas Jefferson. Good thing Trump didn’t also mention George Washington.

Neither morality tale is true and neither is sustainable. American history has its blemishes and horrors. But self-hatred can’t provide the basis for a viable culture, and demanding it only feeds resentment and division.

"Hidden Figures" offers an alternative. “The idea that black women had been recruited to work as mathematicians at the NASA installation in the South during the days of segregation defies our expectations and challenges much of what we think we know about American history. It’s a great story, and that alone makes it worth telling,” writes Margot Lee Shetterly in the book on which the movie is based. The women are the heroines, of course, but the country that recognized their talents -- and that united behind the astronauts they supported -- is equally honored. The book and the movie take patriotism for granted.

Like her protagonists, Shetterly is a well-educated black woman, the daughter of a NASA research scientist and a Hampton University English professor. Her goal as an author wasn’t to replace or subvert the American story but to enlarge it.

“What I wanted was for them to have the grand, sweeping narrative that they deserved,” she writes, “the kind of American history that belongs to the Wright Brothers and the astronauts, to Alexander Hamilton and Martin Luther King Jr. Not told as a separate history, but as a part of the story we all know. Not at the margins, but at the very center, the protagonists of the drama. And not just because they are black, or because they are women, but because they are part of the American epic.”

History is neither a comedy nor a tragedy. It is an open-ended epic. And epics are complex -- just as America’s western expansion or the Pacific War was complex. That’s why readers can still argue over the merits of Achilles versus Hector or whether Milton’s Satan is the hero or villain of "Paradise Lost." What exactly are we to make of Thomas Jefferson, Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, or William Tecumseh Sherman?

For understandable commercial reasons, however, Hollywood, likes its dramas clearcut. And "Hidden Figures," which has grossed more than $100 million domestically since opening Christmas Day, is definitely a commercial film. The transition from book to screen inevitably brought changes: compressing time, changing ages, and creating vivid but fictional incidents. To heighten the drama, the movie unfortunately also adds white villains who didn’t exist in real life, even as composites, and grossly distorts what working at NASA was like for its heroines.

In the movie, the male colleagues of Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) are sullen segregationists who never converse with her and won’t even drink from the same coffee pot. They’re also much older and stuffier than their real-life counterparts, who were, Shetterly writes, “an opinionated, high-energy bunch, and best of all, as far as Katherine was concerned, they were all as smart as whips.” The admiration was mutual:

Katherine’s confidence and the bright flame of her mind were irresistible to the guys in the Flight Research Division. There was nothing they liked more than brains, and they could see that Katherine Goble had them in abundance. As much as anything, they responded to her exuberance for the work. They loved their jobs, and they saw their own absorption reflected back at them in Katherine’s questions and her interest that went so far beyond just running the numbers.

Working at NASA gave bright black women a blessedly meritocratic respite from the daily indignities of everyday life in pre-Civil Rights Act Virginia. Indeed, Shetterly notes that one reason they found the facility’s segregated cafeteria and restrooms so offensive was that they felt equal in the office. Eventually, the institutional culture wouldn’t sustain the state-mandated segregation. “Driven by the pragmatic sensibility of the engineers,” she writes, “management had naturally tacked toward a policy of benign neglect with respect to the bathroom signs and lunchrooms.”

The truth, in other words, is more inspiring than the movie.

But the movie is a start. For all its distortions, it presents a story of women defined not by their victimhood but by their merits. And the big stuff is true: Katherine Johnson really did develop math to calculate John Glenn’s reentry and the astronaut really did say, “Get the girl to check the numbers.” Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) really did have a NASA mentor who encouraged her to study engineering -- a Polish-American Catholic, though, not a Holocaust refugee -- and did get “special permission” to take a night class in the white high school. Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) really did learn Fortran and reinvent her career at age 50. And by the end of the movie, they all receive the recognition they deserve -- including the film itself. Their ingenuity and triumph enlarge the American epic.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Virginia Postrel at vpostrel@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net