This weekend we’re watching: The White Washing of the Space Race
As we explore recent and past films, and following the SpaceX launch, we take another look at the black women who helped win The Space Race.
On 3 June 2020, SpaceX, Elon Musk’s space exploration empire, launched Falcon 9 – its eighth Starlink mission – with the aim of establishing a satellite constellation capable of providing satellite internet access. The new Space Race is on, and this time around, it is not as much of a race between countries for bragging rights as it is a race to capitalise on economic resources available through off-world technology – satellite internet, harvesting valuable elements from the Moon or the creation of unique products which are only possible in microgravity.
Pop culture is already tuning in to the exciting and terrifying possibilities of this emerging contest. On 29 May Netflix launched Space Force, a new comedy series by the creators of the American version of The Office. The premise is that Space Force is a new sixth branch of The United States Armed Forces and is tasked with winning the new Space Race. The show is light viewing and mainly manages to maintain a level of intrigue and charm on the back of John Malkovich’s charisma and Steve Carell’s ability to convincingly act like an idiot.
It is 1926 and Katherine Johnson is the very image of a bright and exceptional future. A seven-year-old prodigy, bumped up two grades due to her unprecedented gift for mathematics…
Fast-forward 35 years and Katherine is stuck in a broken-down car in the middle of nowhere, worried the policeman driving towards her might concoct some reason to send her to jail. Welcome to the segregated sixties. It’s at this point that we meet Katherine’s equally talented peers. Academy-award winning Octavia Spencer plays mama-bear Nasa supervisor Dorothy Vaughan and Janelle Monáe plays self-possessed Nasa engineer Mary Jackson, whose wit flips the situation on its head and lands the three of them a police escort to work that morning.
It is 1961 and the Russians are winning the Space Race, having successfully sent a man to space and bruised many an American ego. The Yanks are paranoid that Russian nuclear warheads could start dropping out of the sky at any moment and are determined to prove the size of their manhoods by matching the feat. Katherine and her colleagues are desperate to play a part in propelling this endeavour, and more than capable of doing so. But they are all black women.
It is blatantly obvious that black lives did not matter to many of the white employees of Nasa at the time. Early on in the film, a group of scientists initiate a dangerous experiment without warning Mary, who is still inside the room, indifferent to the unnecessary risk this poses to her life and leaving her with seconds to get out.
Katherine has to prove her ability to accurately solve and check equations at breakneck speed while also having to run to the opposite side of Nasa headquarters every time she needs the toilet in order to use the “colored” ladies restroom because there isn’t one in the East Wing.
One can only feel fist-clenching frustration watching how the “colored computers” as they were called back then are shrugged off and ignored by their white co-workers. But the director of the space task group is a kind, passionate man and one of the few white characters in the film whose views are not utterly backward. He supports Katherine against her systematic oppression, symbolising the white ally in the struggle against racism – a tricky role to portray from a character in a position of authority without straying within range of white “saviourism”.
Grit your teeth through the abuse which mild-mannered Katherine suffers through – when she finally snaps and makes her voice heard she treats us to a powerful and moving monologue leaving everyone speechless.
When Hollywood sinks its bedazzled teeth into a feel-good underdog film based on true events, there is always a risk that, rather than embrace the complexity of how things actually transpired and the multifaceted personalities involved, they will dumb the characters down to one-dimensional walking stereotypes and wrap the whole film in a kindergarten style moral-of-the-story.
Hidden Figures mostly escaped the pearly whites of Hollywood’s gaping jaws, but one can occasionally see the shadows cast by the bright light of its sickening “winner’s smile” in overly dramatic moments, or hear it breathing in the pauses of patriotic music whenever America triumphs over the commies or a white person says something nice to a black person. Hooraa USA!
For all its merit, Hidden Figures is still an American Blockbuster. There are common storytelling techniques that come with Blockbuster films and, while this is a darn shame, if that is what it takes to convince mainstream audiences to watch a historically revisionist film about the crucial role of talented black women in the Space Race of the sixties, then so be it, because we need to learn about more stories like this one.
We need to learn about them because many white responses to all the black outrage being expressed at the moment have made it abundantly clear that we as a society have not progressed socially nearly as much as we often think (or hope) we have.
Hidden Figures is available in South Africa on Apple TV and Google Play.
If you like Hidden Figures, you may also like The Imitation Game:
The Imitation Game focuses similarly on how the brilliant minds of marginalised people (in this instance a woman played by the fiery Keira Knightley and a gay man played by the enigmatic Benedict Cumberbatch) were instrumental in the unfolding of historical events. The Imitation Game does not entirely fit into the genre of feel-good film but it is a thrilling watch. It is available in South Africa on Netflix, Apple TV and Google Play. DM/ML
Found a little known gem of a film which you absolutely love? Send a recommendation to [email protected]