When two screeners submitted to NYFCO members for consideration as best film of 2016 happen to deal with racism against people of color who are gifted mathematicians if not outright geniuses, your first reaction might be to consider it a coincidence. But upon further reflection, despite all of the gloom about the election of Donald Trump, the film industry still sees such stories as eminently marketable rather than Rambo retreads. Not only are the films marketable, they are first rate.
“Hidden Figures”, which opens everywhere on January 6th, 2017, tells the story of three African-American women who worked for NASA in the 1950s and who had to deal with both racial oppression and sexism. Of the three, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) receives most of the attention. Now 98, she calculated the launch window for the 1961 Mercury mission. As the daughter of a lumberjack in segregated West Virginia, she had many obstacles to overcome. Although I have little use for President Obama, I thought he exercised good judgement when he awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
While its venue was in art houses last April, where features generally make a fleeting appearance unlike the Multiplexes that will screen “Hidden Figures”, my readers will certainly want to take advantage of “The Man Who Knew Infinity” now on Amazon streaming. This is the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan (played by “Slumdog Millionaire” star Dev Patel), who grew up poor in Madras, India and demonstrated a mastery of mathematics from an early age. Working as a lowly clerk after the fashion of Bob Cratchit, his supervisor was struck by a notebook of formulas he kept, so much so that he encouraged him to send letters with a sample of his work to universities in England. After Cambridge don G. H. Hardy (played to perfection by Jeremy Irons) reads the material, he invites Ramanujan to come to Trinity College and fulfill his dreams. Like NASA, however, the institution is racist to the core and almost crushes Ramanujan into the dust.
While both films have most of the well-trod inspirational elements you would associate with such tales, they rise above the genre and soar. This is mostly a function of their faithfulness to the historical context, informed to a large extent by the well-researched books they are based on. Written this year, Margot Lee Shatterly’s “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race” was sparked by conversations she had with her father, who was an African-American research scientist at the NASA-Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia where the women in “Hidden Figures” worked. As for “The Man Who Knew Infinity”, the source material was a book of the same name written in 1991 by Robert Kanigel, who worked as an engineer before becoming a free-lance writer in 1970. In 1999, he became professor of science writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he helped start its Graduate Program in Science Writing, which he directed for seven years. So clearly, we are dealing with authors who are very much wedded to the stories they write about.
In addition to Katherine Johnson, the other two Black women facing discrimination at NASA are Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Vaughan was the supervisor of the West Area Computers section at NASA that despite the name consisted of African-American women whose job it was to do tedious calculations and check the mathematics of other employees, almost like fact checkers at the New Yorker Magazine. Known as “computers”, they had to be much more rigorous than those working for a magazine since the lives of astronauts depended on it. The West Area was segregated from the main buildings at in Hampton—separate and unequal. The women could not even use the bathrooms on the main campus or even the water fountains. When Katherine Johnson ended up working with the white scientists, she had to walk a quarter-mile to return to the West Area to go to the bathroom. When Mary Jackson decided to become an engineer to get away from the drudge work of being a human computer, she found out that no college in Virginia would accept a Black person. Undaunted, she took a night class in a high school after winning a legal case to gain such a right.
In some ways, the film will remind you of “The Imitation Game”, which was also about a crash program run by mathematicians and engineers. But unlike “The Imitation Game”, “Hidden Figures” is much more of a human drama since there is a daily battle by the women to be recognized as equals to whites and to men. In the most stirring scene in the film, Katherine Johnson explains to her boss (played capably by Kevin Costner) that she disappears a couple of times a day from her desk in order to go to the bathroom in a segregated area. Appalled by the waste of time and the disrespect to a fellow worker, he goes around NASA and tears down all the signs indicating facilities for the “colored”.
As another coincidence, the film climaxes with the successful orbital flight of John Glenn (Glen Powell) in 1962. Glenn died two days ago at the age of 95. When NASA used electronic computers for the first time to calculate his orbit around Earth, Johnson was called upon to verify the numbers because Glenn refused to fly unless Katherine verified them first.
When Ramanujan arrives at Trinity College, he is met by racism from every quarter. Even his champion G.H. Hardy mixes well-intended paternalism with jibes about sending him back to India if he doesn’t make the grade.
In many ways, Hardy is a more interesting character than Ramanujan because he is constantly being forced to reckon with the disjunction between his prejudices and the reality of the young man in front of him who he finally acknowledges as the Mozart of mathematics—a man who could penetrate to the heart of a math puzzle and solve it as easily as Mozart could write a sonata.
In one scene, Ramanujan is sitting in a lecture that Hardy has pressured him to attend in order to compensate for ostensible deficiencies in his autodidactic training. When a professor asks him why he is not taking notes, he replies that it is not necessary since he understands the material on the blackboard completely. Not believing him, the professor goads him into explaining what the formulas on the blackboard are about. Nonplussed, Ramanujan arises from his seat, goes to the blackboard and provides a sophisticated solution to the problems being posed by the professor. This does not result in congratulations but instead being thrown out of class for his perceived arrogance. Apparently he doesn’t know his place.
Unlike nearly every film I have seen about scientific matters or chess, this is one that makes very clear what made Ramanujan such a genius. He was the first to crack the “partition” problem that the film elucidates.
Take the number four. There are four ways to calculate the number of paths to that number using simple mathematics:
But what if the number was 3,789,422 instead? Was there any way to use a formula to arrive at the number of ‘partitions’ and bypass manual calculations? This is a problem that has vexed mathematicians forever until Ramanujan solved it. I have no idea what the practical application of such a formula would be but Ramanujan, unlike most men at Trinity College including Bertrand Russell (Jeremy Northam) who were atheists, was deeply religious and once told Hardy that god gave him the insights to solve such problems. For him, solving math problems and praying complemented each other.
The Wikipedia entry on Ramanujan, who died of TB at the age of 32, is most informative:
During his short life, Ramanujan independently compiled nearly 3,900 results (mostly identities and equations). Nearly all his claims have now been proven correct. His original and highly unconventional results, such as the Ramanujan prime and the Ramanujan theta function, have inspired a vast amount of further research. The Ramanujan Journal, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, was established to publish work in all areas of mathematics influenced by Ramanujan.
Deeply religious, Ramanujan credited his substantial mathematical capacities to divinity: “An equation for me has no meaning,” he once said, “unless it expresses a thought of God.”
After seeing both of these films, I could not help but be reminded of one of the main reasons I became a socialist in 1967. When it is such a battle for the women of “Hidden Figures” or Ramanujan to rise to the top, think of all those who were not fortunate to be given a chance. What a waste of humanity when class divisions require a mass of workers to be treated little better than a horse or any other beast of burden. I put it this way in my review of a documentary about Ousmane Sembene, the brilliant Senegalese film director who was thrown out of grade school for assaulting an abusive teacher:
I became a socialist in the 1960s largely on the belief that capitalism held back civilization by preventing a large majority of the world’s population from reaching its maximum potential. If the children of Asia, Africa and Latin America could enjoy the same benefits of those in rich countries, especially a top-notch education and the leisure time to develop innate talents, that could enhance the possibility of a great artist like Picasso or the scientist who could find a cure for cancer emerging out of formerly neglected regions.
Saul Bellow once asked tauntingly “who was the Zulu Tolstoy” in an obvious dismissal of African potential. Considering the career of filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, who is the subject of the great documentary “Sembène” that opens on November 6th at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York, you would conclude that the potential is enormous, held back only by what Andre Gunder Frank once called the development of underdevelopment.