Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Education of Hidden Figures

The film Hidden Figures was another Academy Award nominee that we had the pleasure of seeing on our recent trip to Alameda, California. Like Fences which I discussed last week, it concerns black life in America in the fifties and sixties. The film, based on a true story only recently recounted in a book by Margot Lee Shetterly, centered around three young black women who were involved in the US space program at its very beginning.

The key figure in the film was Katherine Johnson, a mathematician and physicist, played beautifully by Taraji P. Henson. Johnson specialized in celestial mechanics, and played a key role in the calculations necessary to bring an astronaut safely back to earth while re-entering earth’s atmosphere.

The other two women were Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monae, and Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer who was nominated for best supporting actress for her performance. Actually, Vaughan was not a mathematician but a “computer,” that is, one of a whole crew of intelligent, skilled young women who in the early days of the space program did the incredible number of calculations necessary at NASA at a time when the original IBM computers were just beginning to appear. They used only pencils and primitive calculators.

Most of these “computers” were young, intelligent, and skilled women both white and black. In the early days of NASA, which corresponded with the early days of the civil rights movement, these women were segregated even to the point of having to use separate bathrooms. Dorothy Vaughan fought to become supervisor of the all-black unit but at the same time she saw the handwriting on the wall and taught herself Fortran, the language used by the new IBM computers.

Hidden Figures is an excellent, uplifting film with a truly exciting ending as all, black and white, sweat out the problems of John Glenn’s epic first mission with its dangerous fiery return from orbit. However, a couple of thoughts occurred to me as I thought about the film afterwards.

I couldn’t help but be impressed by the black women in the cast, not just the three leading ladies but by the whole group of “computers.” Where did all these young women come from? Where did they develop their skills? Most of them seemed to be just out of high school. Moreover, since most of them were from the South, all of them must have come from segregated, all-black schools. In actual fact, Dorothy Vaughan became a supervisor in 1949 before the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision decided that separate but equal schools in the South were not equal.

Could it be that these segregated schools were not as unequal as the Supreme Court judges thought? A recent letter in the Wall St. Journal from a resident of Louisville, Kentucky bemoaned the fate of his city’s public school system since the forced integration of its schools. He claimed that a flourishing school system back then is now a disaster, especially for blacks. Just today an op-ed in the Wall St. Journal by a black columnist bemoaned the chaos in the New York City public school system.

During my career as a financial advisor, one of my clients was a black man who was a guidance counsellor in a nearby urban school system. He also held a PhD and was on the Board of Governors of the University of Connecticut. He liked to brag about his all-black school in Oklahoma where his small graduating class eventually produced three PhDs.

I could also mention Zora Neale Hurston, a black writer from the South who at the time was very critical of the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. She did not believe that black schools were inherently unequal and argued that the idea that blacks needed to be educated with whites would not result in better education. It would also be a death blow to the progress that black schools and teachers were already making. She wrote,

If I say a whole system must be upset for me to win, I am saying that I cannot sit in the game, and that safer rules must be made to give me a chance. I repudiate that. If others are in there, deal me a hand and let me see what I can make of it, even though I know some in there are dealing from the bottom and cheating like hell in other ways.

 I suspect that Hurston and most of the black women depicted in Hidden Figures were proud of the education they received in their segregated schools. I suspect that they even loved these schools. They had black administrators and teachers who spoke their language, knew their culture, and acted as powerful role models. They could excel in all areas of education not just in sports. They could write and edit the school newspaper and yearbook. They could participate in student government and be elected class President on their own merits and not because of tokenism.

I can imagine what they might have thought when far away judges told them that their schools were unequal, and that they, even the smallest, would have to be bused to schools far away from their neighborhoods. I don’t think they all chose to be part of a great social experiment but then, as now, they had no choice.


Saturday, March 11, 2017

August Wilson's "Fences"

In our annual winter visit to Alameda, an island in the San Francisco Bay area right next to Oakland, we try to see as many movies as we can in the town’s wonderful cinema complex that features a beautifully restored old theater as well as a number of modern screening rooms. This year we were able to see three films nominated for Best Picture for 2016: “Fences”, “LaLa Land”, and “Hidden Figures”. I’ll begin with “Fences” and try to get to the others in future posts.

“Fences” stars Denzell Washington who also directed this film adaptation of the stage play of the same name by August Wilson. Actually, “Fences” is one of a series of ten stage plays by Wilson about life in a Black neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Wilson wrote the screenplay for this film and received a nomination for best screenplay despite having died in 2005.*

Denzell Washington does a great job as the lead character Troy, a garbage man for the city of Pittsburgh, who has never gotten over the fact that he was born too early to break the Major League Baseball color barrier. He is angry and bitter despite the devotion of his loving wife, played beautifully by Viola Davis.

Troy also has two grown sons neither of whom is he able to appreciate or even understand. The eldest son, the product of his first marriage, is a musician whom the father will never go to hear. The other son is a seventeen-year old high school football standout who is being recruited to play in college, an idea totally opposed by his father. Troy has toiled for years to support his wife and children, as well as a brother who was permanently mentally damaged by a head wound while serving in WW II. Troy is a man who understands his responsibilities despite the fact that he ran away from home in Alabama at the age of 14 after a brutal beating by his own father.

Watching the story play out on the screen I could not help but think that the situation of Troy in Pittsburg was not much different from my own father’s in New York City’s borough of Queens back in 1956. Like Troy my father had somehow managed to buy a home in a poor to lower middle-class neighborhood. We lived in a two-bedroom apartment with one tiny bathroom. There was a kitchen with an old table where we had our meals. There was no dining room. It makes me laugh today when I watch home shows on TV where the young people insist on granite or better countertops. We had no counters at all.

My father was born about the same time as Troy to parents who had migrated to New York City from impoverished, rural Italy. He was of that second generation that had one foot in the old world and one in the new. In a sense, Troy’s situation was similar. He was an immigrant to industrial Pittsburg from rural Alabama. After running away from home Troy turned to robbery to survive but wound up in prison where he learned to play baseball.

But August Wilson’s Troy is a man who was never able to fulfill his baseball dream. He is a strong talented man but still winds up in Pittsburg working on a garbage truck. My father was a mechanical genius who could fix practically anything but never even got through grade school. He was working in his father’s store when he got married but went to work in a defense plant when WWII broke out. After the war he became a shop supervisor or foreman, and even invented a couple of valuable processes for which he got little reward or recognition. 

There were so many things about Troy that reminded me of my father. He was outgoing and sociable. He had many friends with whom he talked, drank, and played cards. They all liked him. My mother died when I was just 11 and though my father would never forget her, he soon found another woman in much the same way as Troy did.

I was 17 in 1956, the same age as Troy’s younger son. I was not an athlete but I was an outstanding student. In both cases our teachers were expecting and urging us to go to college, something our fathers did not value or understand. Troy’s son became a Marine but I went to Fordham University the same school that Denzell Washington attended.

August Wilson’s film is about the Black experience in America but Wilson also claimed that he wrote to show Whites that Blacks experienced many of the same things as they did. He wrote,

I think my plays offer (white Americans) a different way to look at black Americans," … "For instance, in Fences they see a garbageman, a person they don't really look at, although they see a garbageman every day. By looking at Troy's life, white people find out that the content of this black garbageman's life is affected by the same things – love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty. Recognizing that these things are as much part of his life as theirs can affect how they think about and deal with black people in their lives.

He certainly succeeded in "Fences." The film did not win the Best Picture award, but could have. Denzell Washington did not win the Academy Award for Best Actor but his performance was also good enough to win. Viola Davis should have won the award for Best Actress but apparently she and her advisors decided to seek only the nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She played it safe but her performance was much better than Emma Stone’s in “LaLa Land”.

* Wilson's was from a bi-racial family. His father was a German immigrant but Wilson took his Black mother's name after the father walked out.


Thursday, March 2, 2017

President Trump's Address to Congress

President Donald Trump and his political advisors put together a brilliant speech Tuesday night in his address to the Congress. David Brooks on PBS gave him an “A”, and even liberal commentator Mark Shields had to grudgingly give him a  “C+”. Trump touched all the high points of his familiar message but did it in such a fashion as to make even liberal commentators say that he appeared “Presidential.”

He also used with great effect the touching stories of some ordinary Americans who had been invited to attend, a practice used by many previous Presidents in State of the Union messages. Their stories were heart-warming and even heart wrenching. Ivanka Trump must have nerves of steel to stand next to the widow of a soldier killed in the Yemen raid and not burst into tears herself, or at least give her a consoling hug.

I do worry, however, that Trump’s promises may have set the bar too high. If he can deliver on his promises and fulfill his lofty vision for America, he will be one of the greatest Presidents in history. I know it is good to set goals and aim high but now President Trump will have to deliver. I do not think it will be an easy task.

For example, it will not be easy to repeal and replace Obamacare. Maybe Republicans in Congress have already figured it out, but how do you provide insurance for people who don’t want it, or don’t want to pay for it, or can’t pay for it? Can you force people to use tax credits to buy insurance? Can you prevent them from spending the money on something else?

President Trump endorsed the idea of allowing people to buy insurance across state lines but the main reason that medical insurance is cheaper in some states is that claims are lower in those states. A doctor in rural West Virginia has much lower overhead than a doctor in Manhattan or LA. If people flock to buy insurance in cheaper states, eventually premiums will rise in those states as claims rise.

I have to admit that when I hear a brilliant speech delivered by a real pro like Trump, I have mixed feelings. It was hard not to be inspired by his message but at the same time, I had to wonder. Could Trump just be, as some suspect, a con man? I don’t think so. It is more likely that he could be a con man who has been converted by his own message or cause in the manner of film characters such as as Professor Harold Hill in “The Music Man," or Gary Cooper in Frank Capra’s masterpiece, “Meet John Doe." However, both these fictional characters were down and out drifters before they rose to prominence. Trump was a billionaire businessman as well as a celebrity already.

I like to think that Trump is more in the line of a wealthy Renaissance merchant who realizes that he must attain political power not only to preserve and protect what he and his family have gained over a lifetime, but also to preserve and protect the city or country that have done so much for him and his family.

The true test of the Trump administration will be on how much it can deliver. If President Trump can just deliver on a third of his promises, it will be a successful Presidency. Batting .333 is good in any league. I hope commentators will begin to focus on what the Trump administration is actually doing, and not on what they fear he will do.