Dorothy Vaughan, one of the three African-American women whose contributions to the US space programme are celebrated in this historical biopic, once said this of the racial segregation and discrimination she faced: “I changed what I could, and what I couldn’t, I endured.”
In adapting Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction book of the same title to the screen, though, writer-director Theodore Melfi and his screenwriting collaborator Allison Schroeder appear to have changed as they pleased, to guarantee audiences a feel-good experience by condensing – and I suspect, sensationalising in numerous places – actual events.
Hidden Figures is the kind of film that will endure nonetheless. It has a charismatic ensemble cast and a story that comes across so right in a time when everything seems so wrong.
It celebrates the unsung, or at least largely unknown outside of their field; it calls out prejudice and denounces the marginalising of communities and genders; it makes mind-numbing mathematics appear accessible (proof, if you still needed it, of how movies are a grand illusion); and it appeals to those who are always looking to the stars – if not to dream about getting there, then at least to wonder about our place among them.
The three central figures here, all winningly portrayed, are also trying to find their place in life while constantly being told what and where that place should be.
They work in a colour-segregated building (this is the American South, after all, at a time when the Civil Rights Movement is only just gathering steam) as human “computers”, assigned to perform complex calculations on flight and space data by hand. Even washrooms are segregated, a point the movie stresses several times to (unfortunately) near-caricature levels which, to me, tended to diminish the impact of that particular aspect.
Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is a capable administrator long denied a supervisory role; Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) is a mathematics prodigy who gets a big break when she is assigned as a computer to the all-white Space Task Group, only to face indifference – at best – from her colleagues; and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) dreams of becoming an engineer in a state where engineers are (a) male and (b) white, and the only option for her is to be allowed to attend classes at a whites-only school.
The film collapses their respective struggles – which took place years apart – into one heady period in 1961 when the United States and Soviet Union were involved in a desperate space race, and the US was lagging behind.
Now that sort of conflating is OK for the purposes of telling a dramatic story on screen, one that does not have the luxury of being read slowly over time like a book or historical record.
While the three women and their families as depicted are real characters, most of the white folks (save for the astronauts) are not. Kevin Costner’s Nasa boss Al Harrison is a composite figure, as are Jim Parsons’ uptight statistician/theorist Paul Stafford and Kirsten Dunst’s strict and aloof administrative supervisor Vivian Mitchell.
Stafford and Mitchell are meant to reflect certain attitudes prevalent among white men and women in those times but this sort of conflating, on the other hand, renders them intentionally unsympathetic characters who might as well be cardboard standees with embedded voice chips.
The same almost goes for Costner’s Harrison, who comes perilously close to achieving escape velocity into the wild blue yonder of “white saviour”.
This stacking of the sympathy deck notwithstanding, Hidden Figures remains a fascinating watch.
Moments of genuinely felt triumph, quiet suffering, and ebullient celebration (Mahershala Ali’s proposal scene is surprisingly affecting in spite of its supreme corniness) will hold your attention between the absolutely riveting test flight scenes that culminate in John Glenn’s (Glen Powell) attempt to become the first American to orbit the Earth.
And although it is set over half a century ago in a distant part of the world, the film’s core lessons still resonate and apply to any place and any situation today.
If you’ve got a problem, and you choose to let prejudice, ego or other types of personal maladjustment blind you to parties that can contribute towards a solution, well … just be prepared to eat someone else’s dust.
Director: Theodore Melfi
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst, Glenn Powell, Olek Krupa