One of my more piratically inclined friends has slipped me a copy, no doubt illicit, of Hidden Figures. This is a nice feel-good movie about the women, all – in the terminology of the time – “coloured”, who operated calculating machines for NASA before the agency’s first computer arrived.
In particular it concentrates on three of them: one who defies several prejudices by qualifying as a rocket engineer, one who is seconded to the unit which calculates orbits and re-entry points, and turns out to be a mathematical genius, and one who studies the inner workings of computers in her own time, and becomes the only person who understands the new IBM machine.
Cynical observers may detect an attempt to dispose in one movie of two complaints about Hollywood: that it offers no meaty heroic parts for ladies, and has a similar deficiency with regards to minorities.
But it seemed a reasonably honest job to me. If I was a critic I would suggest that it would have been more successful as a film if the director had picked one of the three ladies and concentrated on her.
I know Aristotle’s three unities are now out of style, but having three lead characters still seems like maybe two too many.
Never mind. The thing which disturbed me about all this came early in the movie when the future genius is moved to her new department. There is a room full of white men wearing shirts and ties. No doubt in a cooler climate they would have worn jackets as well.
And there is a coffee pot, from which everyone helps themselves. After a day or two this is joined by a second, smaller coffee pot, labelled “colored” (Americans cannot spell) for the exclusive use of the future genius.
I find this bit painful to believe. The NASA staff were, I suppose, recruited on a nation-wide basis. Some of them must have been from parts of the country where the idea of a separate coffee pot for black people would have seemed as outlandish as it seems to me. Yet nobody says anything.
Well I realise that this was a long time ago and even then opinions about the matter were changing. The film’s only whiff of violence comes in the scene where Kevin Costner takes a sledgehammer to the sign over the “Colored Ladies” toilet.
Before I incurr a storm of abuse from American readers I must point out that in the interests of making a feasible movie out of a long book some “facts” were telescoped and some made up. It is quite likely that the “colored” coffee pot never existed, at least at NASA in the 60s.
What worries me is what this tells us about the way things are done today. Six decades ago the idea of segregated toilets or coffeepots struck some people as perfectly normal. Those who complained were told, as the philosophical cow in “Babe” puts it: “you will never achieve lasting happiness unless you accept that the way things are is the way things are.”
Which, I wonder, of the things which we now accept as “the way things are” in Hong Kong will have future cinema audiences gasping in disbelief or squirming in their seats?
Will they suspect that the part of the movie in which an 80-year-old lady is collecting cardboard boxes in a handcart to make ends meet was … made up, exaggerated?
Will they wonder what went through the heads of employers of live-in domestic helpers on terms barely distinguishable from slavery?
Will the author of the book “soon to be a major motion picture” (I have never seen a book which was turned into a minor motion picture) have to provide a foreword in which he says that, yes – people in Hong Kong did sleep under fly-overs, men did sleep in cages and developers did sell mini-flats so small that no self-respecting zoo would have approved them as accommodation for a family of small rodents?
And all this went on while the government was wallowing in an unbudgeted surplus big enough to finance a white elephant on a grand scale. I confidently await the announcement that the Express Rail Link will have solid gold toilets. We have to spend all that money on something.
I don’t know what the future will make of us. And the people who confidently answer questions of this kind — one way or the other — don’t know either.
All I draw from these questions is the thought that there is no virtue in silence or conformity in the presence of something wrong. We cannot solve all of Hong Kong’s problems. Let us at least be able to say, when our grandchildren ask us how these things were tolerated, that some of us did actually complain.