Hidden Figures (2016)

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Before the feminist era, written history was mostly about men while women were by-lines and coloured women non-existent. In the past several decades, women have been reclaiming their place in history and the film Hidden Figures (2016) is part of this cultural change. It is a story that celebrates the achievements of a hitherto un-acknowledged group of women who were called ‘coloured computers’ before the first mainframe IBM was ready for NASA in the 1960s.

Based on real events, the film is set against the Cold War and the frantic race between America and Russia to put the first man on the Moon. More than space science, it was about competing political systems and bragging rights for aeronautical supremacy. The story centres on three gifted coloured women who joined the space program: mathematician Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) audits the calculations of white male scientists and devises new mathematical solutions for trajectory calculations; Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) teaches herself complex Fortran code to become the expert on the IBM computer and NASA’s first coloured supervisor; and Mary Johnson (Janelle Monae) wins the right to enrol in a segregated engineering course to become NASA’s first coloured female engineer. The trio are part of a scientific group that is under immense political pressure to achieve the successful manned spaceflight which became astronaut John Glenn’s space legacy.

The historical facts frame the story but it is the treatment of the facts that makes the film interesting. It could have been a tense drama or dry bio-pic but instead it is full of comedic moments and under-stated racial vignettes. For example, on her first day Katherine is mistaken for a janitor and all the coloured women must walk half a mile to use the segregated bathroom. Despite the best available “white brains” only a coloured woman can work out the new IBM computer and astronaut John Glenn will not ‘lift off’ unless Katherine first checks the IBM trajectory calculations. The ironies are not designed to get laughs, but to show how even the nation’s finest scientific minds were locked into systemic racial discrimination in a NASA culture that was blind to its own prejudices.

This is a great film on many levels. As a bio-pic, it carries the weight of history in telling a story that must be told. The acting is outstanding, with a perfect balance between depicting the ugly side of racial oppression and the women’s determination to contribute to aeronautical science. Character development is on the light side as the focus is not on personality but on achievement. The trio of stars all portray dignity under duress and their repressed anger saves the film from turning into a lecture. It achieves what any bio-pic drama can hope for: it offers feel-good entertainment while informing about a remarkable episode in history.

 4

Director: Theodore Melfi

Stars:  Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner

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