Sunday, January 15, 2017

"Hidden Figures": A Movie that Lives Up to the Hype

Yesterday we went to see Hidden Figures--what a great movie!

I know that some people might see this kind of movie as homework--but it's not, despite its rootedness in history, in recovering a history that's been lost.  I've heard it referred to as a movie made the way that movies used to be made, and that's a compliment:  there are fully formed characters (more than one!), attention to detail, a narrative arc, and oddly, a lot of suspense, even though I knew how it all turned out.

I expected to like this movie from the angle of women's history--and I did.  I expected to like the Civil Rights struggle angle--and I did.  I kept waiting for the KKK to show up, for someone's house to explode.  It's good to remember how many of these struggles weren't the mammoth ones, but the daily ones to overcome indignities, like where the bathrooms are located.  I expected to like the Space Race angle, but how much I still like it does surprise me.

I was surprised by how much I LOVED the computer science angle.  At the beginning of the story, there's an empty space waiting for the IBM mainframe to arrive.  I loved seeing the huge computer, and more than that, the punch cards by which humans communicated with the computer.  My dad began programming computers about 1967 or so, so those big computers are part of my childhood memories:  visiting him at work, creating some punch cards, having used computer printer paper as our scratch paper.

At one point near the end of the movie, when John Glenn is hurtling across space and out of touch for a bit, an older man's cell phone went off.  I marveled at the juxtaposition--it's those very space flights that would make later satellites possible, and it's those satellites that make our cell phones possible.  I know that most people have no idea how much computer power they're carrying with those cell phones, but the average smart phone can do so much more than those early mainframes--and they take up so much less space.

It's an amazing miracle, and one that we move through our days rarely acknowledging.

I was also surprised by the aspects that appealed to my educator self; I wasn't expecting the movie to have that aspect.  The part in the movie where I sobbed the hardest was the scene in the courthouse where one character argues why she should be allowed to take graduate classes at the segregated high school where UVa does extension classes.  She asks the judge which of his legal decisions will be the one for which he is remembered.  I thought about all the first generation students who have moved through my classrooms.  I thought of my grad school self who got tired of fighting battles that she already thought were won (but in truth, were not nearly as monumental as the battles fought by earlier generations of women).  I cried, and I cheered.

As I did some Internet searching, I was happy to see that the movie was the #1 movie last week--displacing a different kind of space movie, the latest Star Wars entry.  Part of the reason why I go to see these kinds of movies is that I want these kinds of movies to be made.  I understand the industry's need to make money, although I am horrified by some of what brings in the money, specifically rape and torture films.

As I watched the movie and thought of myself and later generations of students, I did wonder how we will be replacing these scientists.  Now we don't need humans quite as much to do this computing--but we do need them to work the computers.  We do need people of vision who inspire us to go to new heights of all sorts--I'm not sure we have as many people with the theoretical competence to get us further towards the stars.

Maybe a movie like this one will be part of the solution; maybe younger viewers will see it and understand the creative joy that can come from science, math, and computers.

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