Hidden Figures

February 24, 2017
Janelle Monáe, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures (2016)
Janelle Monáe, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures (2016)

Hidden Figures is yet another movie “based on a true story” that exercises Hollywood’s time-hallowed right to improve on the truth. The time-line for the events portrayed has been subject to a cut & paste job, while real-life characters have been given a makeover – or in the case of Kevin Costner’s Al Harrison, stitched together from two different people. Does it matter? A strict fidelity to reality has never ensured success at the box office, and Hidden Figures is currently top of the charts.

It’s the kind of film that everybody likes: a spirited portrait of three talented women who overcome all kinds of outrageous obstacles. It invites us to look back on those not-so-distant days of the early 1960s and feel reassured at how far we have come, at least until last year’s Presidential elections.

We should perhaps be thankful that a well-constructed, entertaining movie with a message is managing to out-perform the big budget schlock that disfigures so many cinema screens. The latest is The Great Wall, a $150 million dollar embarrassment for an acclaimed actor and a well-regarded director. Matt Damon plays a mercenary, but he doesn’t appear to have been acting. Zhang Yimou appears equally mercenary in his intentions, as money is the only reason anyone would be involved in such a debacle.

No-one need feel ashamed of their work in Hidden Figures. It tells the story of the black women employed as ‘computers’ at NASA’s Langley facility in Virginia, in the days when the calculations required to launch a rocket into space were done by human beings. These women are housed in an office block half a mile from the building in which the white, male scientists congregate.

In 1960 segregation was a fact of life in the Southern United States. The Jim Crow laws that pronounced black and white Americans to be “separate but equal” created a caste system in which poverty, discrimination and lack of opportunity were zealously defended by the courts.

Martin Luther King had been agitating since the mid-50s, but true equality was a long way off. Jim Crow would not be overturned until 1965, while the racist attitudes it enshrined would remain a feature of southern life.

The heroines of Hidden Figures are three African-American women who fought against institutionalised discrimination and made a major contribution to the Space Program. There may be some questions asked about director Theodore Melfi’s version of history, but there’s no doubt about the spirited performances of the three leads: Taraji P. Henson as mathematical genius, Katherine Johnson; Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan, who became a pioneering computer programmer; and Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson, the first coloured woman at NASA to qualify as an engineer.

Among the paler characters, Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons spend almost the entire movie as surly, blank-faced racists, which we are led to believe was a fair reflection of the way whites in Virginia responded to their black fellow citizens, circa 1960. Only the boss, Al Harrison, seems largely free from prejudice, and that may be for purely pragmatic reasons, as he has a rocket to launch.

The skill of Melfi’s direction and Allison Schroeder’s script, is to create a fast-moving, feel-good movie with a vibrant soundtrack, that doesn’t sidestep the ugly moments. The fact that Katherine has to run more than a mile in high heels every time she needs to use the ‘coloured’ restroom, is played for laughs, although it leads to the most dynamic and confrontational speech in the film. The looks on the faces of the white scientists when she pours herself a coffee from the office urn, presents a chilling detail.

Away from NASA we delve into the characters’ private lives, as they strive for normality in the world of limited options. Katherine, a widow with three small daughters, pursues a romance with a gentlemanly soldier, Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali). Dorothy gives her children a lesson in self-respect, and Mary overcomes the scepticism of her militant husband, and the courts, to win the right to study engineering.

At the same time we are made acutely conscious of NASA’s struggle to beat the Russians in the space race. The entire team watch disconsolately as Yuri Gagarin becomes the first man in space, and know they’ll have to redouble their efforts if they are to regain the initiative. Katherine’s calculations are vital to NASA’s success but her brilliance is resented by her peers, notably her immediate superior, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), who insists that his name appear on her reports, as she is only a “computer”.

A large part of this film’s popularity must be due to its timeliness. Donald Trump insists he is not a racist but he has opened the door to racial hatred and division with his attacks on Muslims and Mexicans. His new Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, was considered an opponent by leaders of the Civil Rights movement. In a fractured and fearful society a movie such as Hidden Figures allows for a vital release of tension. Its reworking of history strikes a positive note in an era in which the boundaries between political fact and fiction have been vaporised.

Hidden Figures
Directed by Theodore Melfi
Written by Allison Schroeder & Theodore Melfi, after a book by Margot Lee Shetterly
Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali
USA, rated PG, 127 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 25th February, 2017.