Barry Saunders

This film’s important role models must not stay ‘Hidden’ – Saunders

Hidden Figures

A team of African-American women provide NASA with important mathematical data needed to launch the program's first successful space missions. The film stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe.
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A team of African-American women provide NASA with important mathematical data needed to launch the program's first successful space missions. The film stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe.

Hey, we’ve gotta stop meeting like this.

Relax, I wasn’t pitching the lamest pickup line in history at the three women seated in the front of the movie theater Sunday, but this – our second meeting – was as coincidental as the first.

Like millions of other Americans over the past three weeks, we’d finally gotten tickets to see “Hidden Figures,” the movie about three African-American women – Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson – who were instrumental in helping America beat Russia in putting a man on the moon.

Three hours prior to seeing them in the theater, I’d first bumped into the women, literally, when they approached the ticket window at the Brier Creek movie theater just as my ticketless self was turning away. No, the woman behind the glass told them – as she’d told me – there were no tickets available for the next show or the one after that.

I immediately drove the few miles from Brier Creek to the Raleigh Grande – the same trek I’d made the previous night – where the woman behind the glass also said the next show was sold out. She made, though, an incredibly wise suggestion: Why don’t you buy your tickets now for the show three hours from now?

Should I be embarrassed to admit that I’d never even considered that? To me, movie tickets were something you purchased at the window as you entered the theater. Now, I found out, they aren’t even something you purchase – at least not at the window.

According to an online story in Computer Weekly magazine, the cellphones in our pockets are more technologically advanced than the Apollo spaceship that took men to the moon. You know what that means, right?

‘Hidden Figures’ is the perfect antidote for those of us who want to cuss at the proliferation of TV shows such as ‘Real Housewives of Atlanta’ or ‘Basketball Wives’ – shows that seemingly delight in portraying negative images of black women.

Yep, as my pal Gordon Miller said as he derided me for running all over town searching for tickets in my covered wagon, “Why didn’t you just order them online?”

Huh?

He explained the phenomenon and convenience of buying tickets in advance online, and I responded – I wish I were making this up – “That makes too much sense.”

It apparently made too much sense for the woman in line next to me at the Raleigh Grande, too. She asked for a ticket to the 1:10 p.m. showing.

We don’t have a 1:10 showing, the teenage ticket taker told her. The 1:10 was at Brier Creek, I told her, and she said she’d driven or called all over town to different theaters and had lost track of which was which.

The only seats that hadn’t been sold were on the front row, which meant you had to crane your neck at a 45-degree angle to see the screen. Far from being upset at the lousy seats or the difficulty in getting tickets, I was thrilled, because that meant people were interested in seeing a movie in which women were being exalted for more than their beauty, singing ability or the curves of their un-hidden figures.

“Hidden Figures” is the perfect antidote for those of us who want to cuss at the proliferation of TV shows such as “Real Housewives of Atlanta,” “Basketball Wives” and “Hip Hop Hoochies” – shows that seemingly delight in portraying negative images of black women. (No, there isn’t a real show called “Hip Hop Hoochies,” but it wouldn’t have surprised you had there been, would it?)

What was so cool about “Hidden Figures” is that one of its stars, Octavia Spencer, was in the last movie with black female leads to hit number 1 at the box office: 2011’s “The Help.”

Silly me: I thought it was “Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold.”

Spencer won an Oscar for playing a maid in “The Help.” There is no shame in portraying a domestic engineer. As Hattie McDaniel said when people criticized her for her Oscar-winning role of Mammy in “Gone With The Wind,” she’d rather play a maid than be one.

Being a maid is an honorable occupation – two of my aunts worked in the homes of astronauts in Washington during the 1960s – but it’s important to see us as more than that.

My editor who suggested I write about “Hidden Figures” pitched it this way: How can a movie with no car explosions, Transformers, gunplay or superheroes be so successful for so long? Many movies, the Wall Street Journal reported in a story on the film, see their attendance drop 50 percent after the first week. “Hidden Figures’” dropped just 6 percent and has made nearly $100 million.

The movie’s success, as far as I can tell, is based on the fact that it is historical and doesn’t insult our intelligence. The reviewer for Variety, the showbiz bible, called it “empowerment cinema,” and it was.

Empowering and uplifting though it was, you may feel bad, as I did, that you didn’t know this story before now. You may also feel pity for our country over the potential it has squandered because of racism and sexism that refused to allow full access to education and participation. How much do you want to bet that some kid who would’ve discovered a cure for cancer or Kenny G is somewhere asking “Paper or plastic?” because she couldn’t afford to go to college?

After seeing the movie, it’s easy to see my editor was wrong about one thing, though: The movie was about superheroes.

Barry Saunders: 919-836-2811, @BarrySaunders9

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