Welcome back to Are You Just Watching’s discussion of Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi and staring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe.
What’s that? You missed the first half of our discussion? That’s no problem! Jump over to Episode 70 to listen to Eve and I reflect on the general themes and history presented. This is a truly uplifting true story of three African American women who overcome chauvinism and bigotry during the early days of the American space race.
In the second half of our discussion, Eve and I mine some of the powerful quotes from the movie. Without further ado, let’s jump right into them!
Dorothy: “Permanent or temp?”
Vivian: “Everything’s temporary, Dorothy.”
The West Computer Team knew that they were months away from being replaced by an IBM mainframe that would be able to do the job of hundreds of computers in a fraction of the time. They accepted it. What Dorothy’s actions highlight was that accepting the change was not the same as surrendering to it. Dorothy examined the problem and took intelligent, thoughtful action. She thought not only of herself, but all the computers that were assigned to her as well.
Despite her demonstrated leadership skills, and clearly supervisory position, she did not hold the job title of supervisor:
Dorothy: “What’s unfair is having the duties of a supervisor without the title or the pay.”
It wasn’t that she wasn’t doing the job of a supervisor—she was—but the work was getting done, so NASA had no motivation to pay someone for the job (you don’t fix what’s not broken). However, Dorothy was in charge of the black computers, and her immediate supervisor didn’t seem to have the authority or motivation to pursue correcting Dorothy’s position. Vivian’s tacit acceptance of “the way things are” is summed up in her line,
Vivian: “Well, that’s NASA for you. Fast with rocket ships, slow with advancement.”
Dorothy faced two barriers in correcting her status: more than a century of racial prejudice and an even older desire to not rock the boat. It wasn’t until Dorthy lacked the authority to honor Vivian’s request to have some of the white computers join the programmers, that her promotion was pushed through.
Teaching about privilege
Katherine: “Now I understand you want to be grown and have your own space. So, whoever sleeps in that bed, in Joylette’s place, will also do the dishes, take out the trash, and do all of Joylette’s chores.”
Katherine is rightly teaching her kids that life’s privileges have to be both earned and maintained. They are not something to which you are simply entitled. This lesson seems to be lost on many of today’s Americans. She is in a tough situation—as a widow, she must maintain a career and raise a family. The amount of work that goes into this is mind-boggling.
Katherine’s entire story is one of strong parents. The movie begins with her parents packing up the family and moving to a new town so that she could get the best education for her special, advanced needs. Later in life, after Katherine’s husband is killed in the Korean War, Katherine’s mother comes to her aid and helps raise the kids and manage the house. It is clear that Katherine’s success, and by extension, the success of our children, is bolstered by her dedication and the dedication of her parents.
Levi: “We’re negro, baby. Ain’t no such thing. Understand it?”
Mary: “It’s not like that there, Levi.”
Levi: “You can’t apply for freedom. Freedom is never granted to the oppressed. It’s got to be demanded. Taken.”
Mary: “Stop quoting your slogans at me. There is more than one way to achieve something.”
Mary and Levi have two fundamentally different approaches for pursuing their goals of equal rights. Where Levi’s position was coming from one of anger over the injustice of racism, Mary, and the other women, approach their problems with more finesse and planning. The comparison and contrast between Levi’s and Mary was a nice mechanism to highlight the different attitudes and positions that people could have.
Action, not words
Dorothy: “Petition the court. Fight for what you want. But quit talking about it.”
Complaining doesn’t fix anything, and more often than not irritates the people around you. When Mary’s complaining about NASA’s new engineering requirements got on Dorothy’s nerves, Dorothy pushed Mary to take action. Eve likes how Ben Shapiro typically addresses the topic of institutionalized racism. Here is one of his responses:
(You can find additional videos on the topic here and here.) Ben raises the point that the most effective way to address racism is to identify specific instances rather than complain about unsolvable generalities. It is the differences between choosing targets wisely or trying to hold the tide back with a teaspoon. That’s what Mary does here. She identifies the specific problem, researches and prepares herself to address potential barriers, and takes specific, not aimless, action.
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Corinthians [9:24]-27)
Not everyone is racist
One of the things we both liked about the presentation in Hidden Figures was that it showed plenty of people who we not racist. There a many little things, like the night school teacher simply accepting the inclusion of a black woman joining the all-white, male class—at a whites-only segregated school. This ambivalence might have been common, but while it wasn’t fighting injustice, at the very least, it was denying racism some of it’s power by ignoring its mandates.
Then there was John Glenn, a man who went out of his way to show the black personnel the same consideration that he showed the white personnel. His actions and personality witnessed to a conviction that all people were equal regardless of gender or skin color. Glen’s character was not unique in history, either. Not everyone, in the movie or in real life, had racist or professed racist tendencies. What everyone was, and still is, are sinners. Even the believers still struggle hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute against sinful thoughts and behaviors. That is where racism comes from—the sinful nature of man.
Dorothy: “Separate and equal are two different things. Just ‘cause it’s the way doesn’t make it right. . . . you act right, you are right. That’s for certain.”
Dorothy is delivering a life lesson for her kids after witnessing two extremes of racism, but I think the lesson misses the mark for the viewers. There is truth here, but it is important to note that mankind cannot define what is right. We must base our moral compass in the foundation of God’s divine plan. When we serve God as we were designed to do, righteousness will be the natural result.
“But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.” (Romans [6:17]-19)
Success through unity
Harrison: “Find the genius among the geniuses. We all get to the peak together. Or we don’t get there at all.”
Contrary to the names I used in the recording, it was actually the story of New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepali sherpa Tenzing Norgay, that Harrison is referencing in this quote; both in the final cut and the deleted scene. In the end, the team and the goal become inseparable, and that is what Harrison is refers.
This is a recurring theme in Hidden Figures. Strong positive relationships fuel success. In the movie, you have the relationship between the three main characters, but also shows the power of family and church. The relationship between each of the three women and their coworkers also helped to fuel success. Each of these relationships has a palpable, describable factor on the success of the titular characters.
The double-edged sword
Harrison: “We no longer need a computer in this department. Progress is a double-edged sword.”
Most viewers of Hidden Figures probable never realized that a computer was every anything other than a box with circuit boards and a keyboard. The fact that, at one time, the term computer applied to people is a reminder that progress really has brought about significant change. It also is not likely to stop doing so. We all face the specter of obsolescence, and Dorothy sets a shining example for us all. We need to keep an eye to the future and make plans to stay relevant, just as Dorothy and her staff put in the effort to learn programming when the human computer was facing extinction.
“Race” is not a biblical term
While there have been plenty of racist Christians in the past (as well as plenty of colorblind Christians), the idea of different human races, or the superiority of one skin color over another, has no basis in the Scripture and is a distinction that arises from an evolutionary view of man’s origins. The true source of hateful unfounded prejudice is SIN. Satan cultivates the unfounded prejudice and hatred on both sides in order to poison the fruits of the Spirit.
“And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.” (Acts [17:27]-28b)
All of mankind is called to love and glorify God. When Christ delivered the Great Commission, He made it clear that all are equal, and equally in need of grace, in the eyes of God:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” (Matthew [28:19])
“And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation,” (Revelation 5:9)
In Your Heart, Not In Your Face
Hidden Figures tackles some incredibly difficult topics, not the least of which are bigotry and chauvinism, but it does it elegantly. The power and tenacity of these women, working behind the scenes on one of the greatest efforts of modern man, encourage us as readers. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson personify the idea of the unsung hero, and they deserve every bit of recognition that Hidden Figures brings. Hidden Figures doesn’t throw its messages in your face but plants them in your heart.
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