Hidden Figures

NASA prides itself on showcasing the brightest boffins the world has to offer, all working together to push human endeavour beyond what was once thought possible. In “Hidden Figures”, the task is to put a man into orbit – something never before attempted – and then bring him safely back to Earth (the latter part proving to be the trickiest). But this is not the only task that NASA faces in “Hidden Figures”, which is based on the true story of the contribution African-American women made to the 1960s U.S. space programme. NASA also has to realise the corrosive effects of segregation and discrimination, and realise the enormous benefits – both moral and scientific – of giving women and people of colour a seat at the briefing table. From this, everyone benefits: women, men and science. And yet, no matter how daunting the task of safely putting a man into space is, solving institutional discrimination back on Earth sadly appears every bit as arduous – if not even more so.

This is partly what makes “Hidden Figures” such an interesting movie. It’s a candied (but candid) story of three African-American women working for NASA in the early 1960s. They are Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) – all geniuses in their respective fields, continually having to work twice as hard for half the credit. NASA’s goal is to send a man into space before the Russians, which accounts for the dramatic stakes of the movie. As everyone knows, however, America loses this race – at least the first part of it. The Russians win the first leg by sending Yuri Gargarin into orbit in 1961, much to the chagrin of the U.S. government. Sadly, this won’t be the only time the Russians undercut an in-office Democratic president.

What’s interesting is that Russia in the early ‘60s was ahead of the United States not just in aeronautical terms, but also in giving women a chance to shine. Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963. America wouldn’t get round to sending Sally Ride into space for another 20 years. In Russia between the years 1962 and 1964, women accounted for 40 percent of all PhDs awarded in chemistry. Meanwhile back in the United States, that statistic was only at five percent. The irony of NASA’s endeavour becomes clear in “Hidden Figures”. NASA’s vision, as stated on its website, is to “reach for new heights and reveal the unknown”, claiming it does so “for the benefit of mankind.” Except, as “Hidden Figures” shows, in its formative years NASA did so by neglecting more than half of it.

As a film, “Hidden Figures” is a bit of a contraction; at least in its presentation. On the one hand it’s a very “Hollywood” movie. It hits all the feel-good beats, is a bit too formulaic and cheesy, but ends up being a really enjoyable, wonderfully rousing crowd-pleaser. But then, contradictorily, it also couldn’t be further from a typical “Hollywood” movie. The reason being, of course, that Hollywood rarely has black women at the centre of its films; let alone three smart, extremely capable black female scientists. What’s more, not only do we see these women as chalkboard superheroes and numerical ninjas, constantly displaying their mathematical prowess, but we also see them simply hang out, flirt and be themselves. They also do not engage in any stereotypical bitchy rivalry that a movie, such as this, would often necessitate. They are friends and they are supportive of each other’s progress; and we as audience members love being in their company.

The three central performances are all terrific. And each of the characters could easily have warranted their own standalone movie. They are an excellent on-screen trio, bouncing off one another’s distinguishing characteristics. The script by Allison Schroeder and director Theodor Melfi, however, is not striving for originality or artistic inventiveness. Therefore to criticise it for failing to do so seems harsh. Instead, “Hidden Figures” simply sets out to tell a remarkable story in a clean, entertaining fashion. And there’s something enormously satisfying about seeing a well-told story with a clear moral centre and a strong emotional payoff.

The second scene of the film is a great example of its crisp efficiency. It’s the scene where we first meet our three central characters. (In the first scene we see Katherine as a child prodigy, but this is the first time we see her as Taraji P. Henson.) The three women are by the side of the road after their car has broken down. We see Dorothy underneath the car, screwdriver in hand, trying to fix it. The rapport between the three women is immediately evident. They have wonderful chemistry together and the scene unfolds with a police car pulling up behind them, introducing tension (black women, white cop, the 1960s, the American South – not a welcoming combination). Not only does this scene brilliantly and efficiently establish these three characters – their mannerisms, their friendship, their differing personalities – but it also sets up many of the film’s themes as well. The three women use their talents to persevere in spite of their unfortunate circumstances. By the end, things are moving in the right direction and the women have gained enormous respect (albeit from those whose opinion on such racial and gendered issues matter a great deal less). As a visual metaphor, however, it’s clever storytelling; and it neatly encapsulates the film.

But there are moments when “Hidden Figures” feels like it goes too far. Kevin Costner plays Al Harrison, Director of NASA’s Space Task Group. He’s the sort of guy that doesn’t seem to care if you’re a man or woman, black or white. All he wants is for you to crunch the numbers and crunch them on time. But this leads to plot points that, although structurally significant, seem pretty implausible. For instance, Katherine has to endure endless belittling treatment from the Space Task Group: constant patronising, measly “coloured” coffee, and 40 minute bathroom breaks on account of the “coloured” bathrooms being half a mile away. Having stayed silent for so long, she finally speaks out. And, in doing so, gives Costner his big moment. Costner righteously grabs a crowbar (yes, a crowbar) and repeatedly whacks the “coloured bathroom’s” sign until it comes tumbling down… Couldn’t you have gotten the janitor, Kevin?

The film is full of little moments like this, although perhaps not quite as extreme – moments punctuated by the film’s sometimes annoyingly jovial soundtrack. Towards the end of the film, the creative licensing starts to creep in again for dramatic effect. But again, it feels too forced. There are too many characters running around with folders pressed to their chest trying desperately to pass them on to the right people before take-off. In reality, this wasn’t exactly the case. But then again, it’s a Hollywood movie… What’d you expect?

There isn’t a great deal of visually interesting storytelling going on in “Hidden Figures” – which is a shame considering how effective the rest of the storytelling is. However, one visual touch that works rather brilliantly (aside from Janelle Monáe’s killer outfits) is the way the film shows how out of place these three women are with respect to their surroundings. Almost everyone working at the high end of NASA is male. And they are all white. They all look white, and they all dress in white – that traditional mid-century office look of white short-sleeved shirt and tie. As a result, everyone at NASA looks the same. They all blend into one big white establishment. And the colour scheme of the interiors is also deliberately very muted and grey.

Now cue Taraji P. Henson entering this environment. She is a black woman, colourfully dressed, entering into a white male world. This immediately makes her the most striking thing on-screen. And every white head turns as she walks by. In doing so, her conflict at NASA is directly represented by the conflicting colours on-screen.

Most of the film revolves around Katherine’s point of view. However, Janelle Monáe risks walking away with the movie. Her character Mary was the first black female engineer at NASA, and shines every time she’s on-screen. However, Octavia Spencer has perhaps the hardest part to play among the three women. Her character Dorothy does not have the big emotional scenes that Katherine and Mary have. Hers are much more nuanced. But the relationship between Dorothy and supervisor Vivian Michael (played brilliantly – as one would expect – by Kirsten Dunst) is the most interesting relationship in the whole movie. It’s remarkably delicate given the film’s fairly unsubtle approach.

Vivian is a bigot. But Dorothy never lectures her or gets any big “movie moment” to set her straight. Instead their relationship plays out much more authentically; something which feels a lot closer to reality than any crowbar-swinging from Costner. One of the best scenes in the film is when Vivian looks Dorothy in the eye and earnestly says, “Despite what you think, I have nothing against y’all.” As has been evident throughout though, this obviously not true. But Dorothy does not lose her temper. Instead, she quietly and respectfully replies, “I know… I know you probably believe that.” It’s a brilliant, underplayed exchange – one that’s sadly still relevant to today as it was back then.

Despite its sugary delivery, “Hidden Figures” still manages to be wonderful entertainment. But what elevates it above most films of this sort is that it sheds light on a much larger issue. Not just in terms of Hollywood’s representation of African-Americans, but in terms of its representation of women too. When people think of NASA during the ‘60s, most do not picture black women contributing to its cause. Yet they did – significantly so. “Hidden Figures” is celebratory in tone, yet its lasting impression is to make one ask the question: How many more hidden figures are out there? How many more stories have yet to be told? How many more women that made significant contributions to science were forgotten or overlooked because of institutional sexism. The answer is, of course, plenty: women like Rosalind Franklin, Jocelyn Bell Burell, Lise Meitner and countless others – all of whom endured discrimination simply for being a woman; all having to put up with men exclusively being awarded for discoveries they were absolutely integral to.

“That’s just the way things are.” This line is heard over and over again in “Hidden Figures”, and is always directed towards black women by white people to justify racism. But the movie shows that accepting “the way things are” flies in the face of true scientific endeavour. For instance: man cannot travel to space. For millennia, that was just the way things were. But science challenges that notion. And “Hidden Figures” shows that that restrictive way of thinking benefits neither science nor the voices it chooses to neglect. NASA’s ultimate vision is to benefit all of mankind. But believing “that’s just the way things are” in situations involving blatant discrimination means that, no matter how many small steps man takes, mankind will never take a giant leap forward.


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