How far our values and common decency have come, and are sliding back is clearly on display in ‘Hidden Figures’ the story of the African American women who were literally called ‘computers’ during NASA’s Mercury space program. This film is part of Hollywood’s response to the ‘Oscars so white’ scandal of 2015. But most of all it’s a story about African American women who are brilliant at mathematics and by sheer bloody minded determination achieve their potential and their goals.
Hidden Figures starts with a prequel of the lead protagonist Katherine Johnson a whiz kid mathematician who because of her skin colour has to move states to get the education she deserves. Flash forward to 1961 the ‘current day’ in the movie timeline and three computers, Katherine Johnson (Taraji Henson) Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janel Monáe) are broken down on a Virginian highway with a police highway patrol approaching. What’s on display to the audience in this tone shattering opening scene is just how much those who are not white and not male need to submit and obey to keep out of trouble because of their sex and race. This scene sets up the social standards of 1961 Virginia and although the scene’s polite in its execution not to offend the white men for showing them who they are it did what it needed to do to get the audience on side to barrack for these three protagonists.
At work at NASA it’s not any better. Everything is divided into ‘colored’ and white including coffee pots, work kitchens, staff rooms and buildings. Nostalgist’s thinking the time of John F Kenndy is a better time, would do well to watch this movie. Hidden Figures takes its time to establish this as the era of ‘separate but equal’. Yeah. Nah. Octavia Spencer’s character Dorothy Vaughan is the team leader but isn’t formally the team leader because she is ‘colored’ . Dorothy manages more resources than her immediate manager, a white colleague Vivian Mitchell — an exceptional Kirsten Dunst playing an unforgiving role. Octavia Spencer is everything you’ve read and more, and the scenes with Dunst gives us an intimate personal one on one picture of this too recent state sanctioned apartheid.
In the astro engineering lab run by an unforgiving Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) the misogynist ivy league white male engineers are burning through the white female computers and as a last resort Vivienne Mitchell goes to the ‘colored’ section and asks Dorothy for her best and brightest. Finally the young girl we witnessed in the opening frames of the movie, and we the audience knows is the smartest person in any room on screen has her moment to shine. Katherine Johnson is terrified, the white engineers are contemptuous. The mansplaining and bigotry is not subtle, but neither is it obvious. It runs on screen in Hidden Figures as contemptuous silent bullying. Jim Parson’s of TV’s Big Bang Theory has the job of representing white, male and resentful. It’s unfortunately a one dimensional baddie who should just be given the black hat for completeness.
The absurdity of Katheriine’s situation is the 40 minute round trip to the ladies ‘colored’ toilet. I found myself thinking ‘and the Americans wondered why they were losing to the Russians in the space race’? Here’s your reason right up on the screen’. You’re not taking your best and brightest, your taking the best and whitest Ivy league men, then if really desperate the white women. The Russians at this stage were taking their brightest from everywhere and anywhere including the gulags.
The third hidden figure is Mary Jackson a fireball of energy who is working with an expat Austrian jew Professon Zielinski testing the capsule design. Zielnski can see past the racism, sexism, and the ludicrousness of separate but equal. He knows he wants the best, and he can see that Mary Jackson is the best engineer in everything but name and encourages her to skill up at night school. There are, unsurprisingly, problems with these two outsiders planning to help NASA. The night classes are at an all white High School that does not even allow blacks to attend.
These stories are told in a gentle way, as if not to offend or admonish a modern audience. At times I wanted Hidden Figures to be harder but then figured nobody would see it if it was — ‘Twelve years a slave’ is a case in point. Instead Hidden Figures is a feel good movie about doing your best, not standing back, not being cowered into submission and just standing up to do what’s right. For me, Hidden Figures is a beautiful story about the colour and gender blindness of mathematics and science. Katherine Johnson says at one point ‘the numbers don’t lie” and the numbers don’t discriminate either. While the overt racism of the time is played with a lightness of touch, the maths on screen is anything but. It’s a brave movie that is not afraid to mention cosine, pi, algebra, quadratic equations and not dumb things down. The effectiveness of the film’s tone in telling the story of the environment of these ground breaking women is that the racism is routine, that it’s taken for granted, and that for those that live in this environment every move has to be measured restrained, and overtly, obviously obedient and submissive while every instinct in their body is screaming for them to assert their morale and ethical rights.
Performances are all on the money with a particular shout out to the supporting cast. There’s some clunky editing just past the half way mark. While not sepia in tone, the production design does make it feel a bit Ozzie and Harriet. The script is great, and I particularly liked the juxtaposition in the script of home and work life and some of the cinematographic choices – especially the use of NASA’s archive footage of the Mercury program.