"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

"Hidden Figures" (2016) has misplaced nostalgia

I was reminded of a past movie while watching the contemporary "Hidden Figures." I was reminded of "Hairspray," the version with John Travolta in drag. A criticism of that movie was that it tried to get nostalgia out of the civil rights movement. Nostalgia was way too light a tone for something that could be so difficult and unpleasant.
The process of civil rights advancement was halting and marked by pain. It was dangerous for all who fought to move forward. People have a legal shield today for asserting the basic rights of which they are deserving. Jim Crow is gone. Back when it was real, it was more than an annoyance. It reflected the specter of white dominance and supremacy, a way of thinking that dated back to the Civil War and its aftermath.
The kind of racism we see in "Hidden Figures" seems almost amusing. We get the feeling from early-on in this movie that no one is really going to get hurt. Certain white people came across as annoying. They just seem pathetic as a throwback, not empowered to hurt people of color in a fundamental way.
We do hear a news bulletin at one point about something truly tragic but we are spared a graphic depiction. It's as if the moviemakers consciously wanted to insert this as if an admission of guilt about the veneer of innocuousness. Yes it's innocuous - the mere obligation of a black woman to have to go out of her way to use a "colored" restroom. As if this was as bad as it could get.
My point about "Hidden Figures" is affirmed right away when we see a law enforcement person accosting the three heroic characters. I sensed: "Oh, this could be very bad." We get the feeling that the officer is racially motivated. But the scene quickly turned into something innocent. The officer became pacified and helped our heroines move along.
We even get humor: the officer wonders about NASA hiring. . .(blank). He obviously appears to be leading to the word "blacks" or "Negroes" or another term we're familiar with. He is interrupted: "women?"
A racist Deep South officer from that time period would not back off and facilitate so routinely. The movie audience is expected to break into smiles. The movie "Hairspray" inspired similar warm thoughts. The barriers to racial equality seem like nothing more than transitory annoyances, destined to come down as all the white people become readily aware of the errors of their ways.
The Kevin Costner character breaks down the "colored" sign with a hammer. He looks heroic. But how could such intelligent people - the people mapping our space program - ever have tolerated this situation at all? NASA reflected "the Feds" who were the force that invaded the Deep South and didn't put up with any funny business at all. Remember Gene Hackman in "Mississippi Burning?"
Wouldn't the Feds have established systems anywhere in the U.S. that were free of the most regressive ways of the Deep South? The Deep South was literally dangerous to the physical safety of non-whites and could readily be fatal to all who stood up to the racial status quo. We see no such hazards or consequences in "Hidden Figures."
Those ignorant white people, like the librarian who reminds of the "colored" section of that place, just seem misguided and foolish - an inconvenience. They maybe seem almost apologetic? Oh, that's not the way racism really asserted itself in the old Confederate states. Nostalgia? The civil rights movement was noble in that it pushed for goals that had to be accomplished. In reality it was like a minefield much of the time. 
We see the unpleasant stuff in "Free State of Jones." People lost their lives.
The myth of nostalgia comes from behind the protective shield of 2017 America which legally does not permit the Deep South shenanigans of the earlier time. Let's just pretend that we all just needed a little time to learn to all get along better.
We can accept "Hidden Figures" and "Hairspray" as entertaining movies. And let's laud them on acknowledging the force of goodness. But I would suggest it's revisionist history. As long as we all accept that, fine.
Space: winning the competition
The so-called "space race" certainly inspires nostalgia. I was in early elementary school where we saw our astronauts in their glorious silver-colored suits as heroes. They were heroes against the evil Soviet Union, right? Well, it was the fear of this thing called "communism" that lurched us into the horrific Viet Nam war. "Communism" was the boogeyman.
It wasn't enough to just want to explore space. I guess the government felt we had to be motivated by wanting to beat some competing force, as if Americans would yawn otherwise.
Visiting space opened the way for scientific inroads that brought revolutionary things into our lives. It was either that or the flying saucer that crashed at Roswell NM, right (LOL)? Remember the "Tang" powder for mixing beverages? Remember "Space Food Sticks?"
The Cold War was this dark and disturbing backdrop for my growing-up years. There is no nostalgia to be found in it, not even in Alfred Hitchcock movies (LOL).
What do all the squiggles mean?
The African-American women in "Hidden Figures" can really do a job on a chalkboard, filling it with figures that reminded me of the movie "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (the original version). A blackboard gets full of numbers and symbols that reflect absolute genius. But in the movies, do all those squiggles really make sense? Are they just random, made to look sophisticated?
I smile as I imagine the moviemakers conjuring up such stuff: a bunch of figures and equations that explain space travel. 
"He's almost got it," we hear "Klaatu" say in the classic "The Day the Earth Stood Still."
Another space-centered flick
"The Right Stuff" was a movie showing the conquest of space, remember? I remember that movie as being typically pretentious for the time in which it was made. It was ponderous. People sit around at bars. In the immediate post-WWII years, the idea of sitting around consuming alcohol really took root, maybe as a way of allowing veterans to deal with post-traumatic stress. They drank and they smoked. Unfortunately their children began to think that was cool too. We got the lowered drinking age right at the time I graduated from high school.
I could go without ever seeing "The Right Stuff" again. We see an astronaut on a bar stool watching comedian Bill Dana play an astronaut on TV. The astronaut laughs even though the scene wasn't really funny. Dana became famous playing a Hispanic who conformed to stereotype. He had a brief window of fame that I suspect he was not real proud of. Kids became fond of "Jose Jimenez" jokes.
You sense that I'm not particularly enamored of the 1960s. I loved the movie "The Reluctant Astronaut" starring Don Knotts. How sad that such an innocent movie came out in a time with such tragedy unfolding as the Viet Nam war and the civil rights movement with its minefield of danger.
The civil rights proponents would have been fortunate had they confronted such innocent and misguided souls as the "racists" in "Hidden Figures." Sorry, I can't get on this bandwagon.
I compliment the movie on its portrayal of John Glenn the astronaut. The actor nails the role with the air of a true hero: breezy in temperament and confident. He wouldn't want to bother with racism. He had the air of a future politician: a real "people" person. Remember, he would become a Democrat!
I laud the three women who played the African-American heroines in "Hidden Figures": Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae. And a big hats-off from yours truly to Glen Powell who plays John Glenn.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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