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Vandana Kohli
Vandana Kohli


Hidden layers

Hidden-Figures A still from the film, Hidden Figures

On the face of it, the film Hidden Figures is about three African-American women who worked at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the early 1960s in the US. These women, each with an exceptional bent of mind, were critical to defining and accomplishing the programme of the space agency.
However, beyond the one-liner, through its beautifully crafted and light-hearted narrative, the film touches layer upon layer of the human psyche, revealing attitudes and approaches of the times, as well as things of the mind that may well be timeless.


The first and most obvious point the film highlights is the discrimination the women face. That they are women, and black women at that, working on complicated numbers and calculations at the space agency is a fact that their white colleagues, both men and women, find extremely difficult, if not impossible, to come to terms with. Over and over again, these women face incredulity, ridicule and humiliation at the workplace.
When one of them, Catherine Goble, considered a human computer by her colleagues, is reassigned to work at the Space Task Group, the main unit of the agency, her very presence as she walks in has all the white men staring at her in cold, hostile silence. That she has been called in to check over the mathematical calculations of the engineers, including the head engineer Paul Strafford (Jim Parsons), is a fact that none of the men are able to accept.
Over and over again, she faces resistance and unfairness. Information that is crucial to her work is withheld from her. This compounds the work many times over, and sometimes renders all her hard work useless, since the information she might have needed to factor in, is not given to her on time. Apart from that, she is designated a separate coffee machine and has to use a restroom that is half a mile away.
The other two women, equally brilliant minds, face similar challenges that are both oppressive and derogatory.


In contrast, two characters stand apart. The first is Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), the head of the agency, to whom what matters is the work and getting it done. This clear, sincere objective allows him an open-mindedness that rides over any discrimination against colour and gender. He is the pivot in the film, for Catherine’s brilliance to be known, acknowledged and, finally, appreciated.


The second delightful character is of astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell), who reveals his openness upon his arrival, when he walks over to the segregated group of 30 African-American ladies to shake hands and chat with them. As the film progresses, he is witness to Catherine’s mathematical genius including calculations that have never been done before. Then, at the most crucial juncture of him being put into orbit, there is confusion on the data belted out by the grand, IBM computer. “Run it past the girl,” he tells Harrison. “If she’s okay with it, I’m good to go.”
This episode is most revealing of the importance of trust. However fast or complicated the data a machine can process, very little comes close to replacing the trust we inherently and instinctively place in each other or in the other beings we know, in our pets, for instance. In fact, we suffer when we feel we are not able to trust our fellow beings.
This inclination towards trust is a timeless one. It runs at a layer so deep within our psyche that personality, preference, milieu or time has not been able to replace it. In these times of strife, it may remain hidden, but it is not obliterated.

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The Week

Topics : #Mindscape | #opinion

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