February 20, 2017

A few weeks ago I wrote about how the United States had in a meaningful way forsaken education and given up striving to be better. The news headlines between then and now have emphasized my observations. To be “DeVossed” is now a term that means one has been made more ignorant. If we keep to the path we’re on, this is what “Americanized” will soon mean.

So it was refreshing to watch the film “Hidden Figures” today. I had three main responses to this well-made film and a host of more superficial ones. First, I was thrilled to see a movie celebrate intelligence. And not merely innate, genetics-given intelligence, but hard-earned intelligence. Here are smart people who worked hard and overcame serious obstacles to get smarter, smart people who constructed a community of smart people who supported each other. They weren’t the typical Hollywood lone wolves embroiled in the throes of their isolated genius. The women featured in this story, both by personal choice and through mutual support, dedicated their intelligence to a cause that meant more than merely personal gain or glory.

This brings me to my second reaction: it was a relief to be reminded of a time when the country, on a national level and in the lives of millions of individuals, directed itself toward something transcendent, something that meant something to almost every American. The space race clearly derived from strategic and nationalistic impulses, but it also celebrated science, human potential, and hope for a better future. We desperately need a new space race or its equivalent.

My third reaction is to shake my head in disbelief that we have progressed so little over the last 56 years. Okay, maybe we don’t have separate drinking fountains or rest rooms for blacks and whites anymore, but racism and sexism are obviously still rampant in our society. One need look no further than Washington over the last month to see examples of both on the most influential stages in the world. Is it any coincidence that only white men were allowed to read a letter by one of the most respected black women in American history on the Senate floor? Absurd.

I’m excited that Hidden Figures has become such a hit. We need reminders of what our country could become should we make policy and funding decisions that support education, value science, provide opportunities for women and minorities, and coalesce around common goals. On the other hand, it is probably mostly being watched by viewers who already believe in these things. Hopefully, among the viewers of all political persuasions are a few young people who now know what it will take to reach for space—and that they could have what it takes.

Okay, I know that last line sounded like one of my typical trying-to-be-profound-but-not-annoyingly-profound endings, but I thought you might want to hear some of my more prosaic observations. 1) Mahershala Ali, who plays Jim Johnson in this film, is in two of the best movies I’ve seen lately—this one and the incredible Moonlight. I’m glad he’s getting good roles in impactful films. 2) It was nice to see Kevin Costner in a movie that was clearly not all about him; he’s much better in these kinds of supporting roles. 3) How did Taraji P. Henson, who plays Katherine Johnson in this film, not get nominated for an Academy Award? Were there too many black women already being recognized? 4) I sincerely hope that John Glenn was as progressive in real life as this movie makes him out to be.

Overall, of the films nominated for best picture at the Oscars, I’d put this a close third behind Moonlight and Arrival. In a way, it combines some main themes of the other two—the need to provide more opportunity for self-realization to those traditionally denied it, and the need for people with depth of intellect and commitment to solve our toughest problems. Our country desperately needs to hear these messages, and I’m glad at least some of us are.