It’s sad to think that just 50 years ago, America was still segregated. And that men would make comments like, “This curriculum isn’t written for women.” It was a struggle for black people and for women, and a real struggle for black women.
But Hidden Figures tells the story of some remarkable and gifted Black Women in the 60s who defied regulations and exceeded expectations to become some of the most important people in the space race.
The film follows a group of three friends who work at NASA on the space programme, there’s the matriarch of the group, Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) who is working as a Supervisor in the computer department of NASA, looking after the black women, yet without the pay or the title. She’s a smart cookie who can jump start a car engine and knows her numbers.
Then there is sassy Mary (Janelle Monae), a glamourous and mouthy lady, and fiercely intelligent. She works at NASA as a computer but has aspirations of being an engineer. She says if she were a white man, she already would be a NASA engineer, but because she is a black woman, she can’t attend the school where she needs to take the course to qualify as an engineer.
Then there is Katherine (Taraj P. Henson), whom the story centres around. She is the most brilliant mathematical mind at NASA, but because she is a black woman, gets overlooked. She is called up to the Space Task Group to calculate the trajectories toget astronaut John Glenn into orbit and while her work is just as good, if not better, than everyone else’s, she is subjected to suspicion and ridicule.
She is made to drink out of a separate coffee pot and has to walk half a mile across campus to use the black ladies’ bathroom. Not to mention she struggles to do her work properly because her manager Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) insists on striking out key pieces of information with a black marker before handing it over to her because she “doesn’t have clearance.”
The head of the Space Task Group, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), is not concerned with race relations and is focused purely on winning the space race to put a man on the moon. He is dealt a blow when the Russians beat the US to putting a man into space and becomes more determined than ever. He is so impressed with Katherine’s work, and is one of the few who values her work, and although he never says it, you can tell he is impressed with her gumption as she frequently stands up to him and to Paul to argue her point.
It’s an excellent cast and they were recognised at the Screen Actors Guild Awards with Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. The comradery and diligence of the three leading ladies really shines through, and Costner is excellent as the authoritative father figure. Parsons is less, well ‘Sheldon’ but plays the nearest thing to a villain in the piece as he refuses to acknowledge Katherine’s intelligence. There is also a good turn from Kirsten Dunst as a supervisor who claims she isn’t racist, but actions show otherwise. And Mahershala Ali (who is tipped for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Moonlight) as Katherine’s love interest, a hunky but ill-informed Colonel, Jim Johnson.
Hidden Figures is an interesting and compelling story as the three lead women battle to get themselves heard and respected while doing what they do best: making the numbers work, both on a blackboard and in the case of Dorothy using the new IBM machine.
However, with the inundation of films at the cinema in the last month for awards season, I wouldn’t say that this is one of my favourites. The cast was excellent, but the story was slow at points and I found myself checking my watch a couple of times – never a good sign.
It’s a story that needs to be told – about women standing up to do their job and achieve great things in the face of adversity (Katherine Johnson was awarded with a Medal of Honor for her work). But the film feels skewed to be a feel good experience when the reality was far from that. Yes, that’s Hollywood, and sometimes it’s nice to see a film with heart and leave the cinema with a smile on your face, but it almost plays the white men, Parsons in particular, as pantomime villains.
The trailer was great, but it was one of those montages that meant that you can work out what happens in the entire film: women struggle against prejudice, Katherine gets pulled up to a really high profile job at NASA, she has to run across campus to the bathroom so Kevin Costner uses a crowbar to knock the ‘colored bathroom’ sign off the wall. Katherine scribbles equations furiously on a blackboard… And because it is based on real life events, we all know that John Glenn gets into space and returns safely.
Hidden figures is a good film, a happy film, but it doesn’t offer much new in a predictable, light-hearted story. These ladies may have helped the US win the space race to the moon, but I think the film is unlikely to win at the Oscars.