Hidden Figures: Young Readers’ Edition (Shetterly)

My school received a donation of enough copies of the book for both students and staff. We are going to hear the Anisfield-Wolf award winning author speak on Friday at Cleveland State University. The Young Readers’ edition is one of the better examples of the form that I’ve encountered. Shetterly successfully intertwines the stories of the four African-American women – Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden – against the backdrop of the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, and the introduction of television. It is to her great credit that she is able to make the moments of space flight suspenseful even though the outcome is already known. There is a particularly lyrical section in the first chapter that sets the context for the experiences of these four remarkable women. I enjoyed the pictures included in the text and wished for more of them. And the explanations of the science and math were within my feeble reach in those subjects.

To reward myself, I watched the movie with my family. It was, in short, awful. Remarkably, Theodore Melfi, a white man who both co-wrote the screenplay and directed the movie (why?) managed to make it a story about Al Harrison (Kevin Costner, in full speech-making mode – Crash still loves making speeches). Melfi reduced the 4 women to 3 and maybe, maybe, the trio as main character made it hard to do much more than paint each woman as a stereotype. And I understand that you sometimes need outsider characters to show change, but for a story that was, by all accounts, a story about African-American women asserting themselves in a racist and sexist society, why does Harrison become the hero for tearing down the sign marking one bathroom being for one race only (a completely fictitious scene in a movie based on true events)? Granted, we do see the women doing math, though Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) has this awful line in response to a patronizing and sexist remark from a would be suitor: “So yes, they let women do things at NASA, Mr. Johnson. And it’s not because we wear skirts. It’s because we wear glasses.”  This is what they came up with for Johnson to articulate her intelligence and independence?!?!?!

Then there’s the troublesome nature, present in both the book and the movie, of exceptionalism. Is it possible to both applaud the telling of a purposely neglected story (though I wish, especially in the movie, that one of the women had been allowed to tell it) and to worry that the book and movie contribute to the narrative present in so many stories featuring people of color, narratives that are comforting to white people, that essentially can be boiled down to — If they can do it, why can’t you? (And therefore if you can’t, it must be due to some flaw in your character.)

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