Hidden Figures is a harmless, old-fashioned all-ages family movie, that teaches an important historical lesson, but it’s light on its feet, entertaining and never feels like a slog. Quite the contrary: this is a very gentle film about issues of race and discrimination that calmly, firmly, makes its points with dignity. It won’t change the fabric of modern cinema, or turn into a cult film, or alter the cultural landscape, but it will work its charm on an all-ages audience for two hours, and perhaps kindle the interest of a young person in science and math. This is not to damn with faint praise, but rather to simply admit that I’m probably not the audience for this movie, but judging from its box office success and Oscar nominations, it has connected with American audiences in this very difficult and confusing time.
The opening scene is a veritable masterpiece of storytelling economy. Our three main characters, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (the ubiquitous Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae, almost stealing the movie) are three African American women who work in the nascent space program, in Langley, Virginia. Set in 1961, when the race to put the first human in space was in full cry, and NASA itself was only two years old, this was also a time of intense racial tension. The Freedom Riders, the SCLC and, one has to admit, the KKK, were all large parts of the cultural landscape. Segregation still existed in the south, but Hidden Figures doesn’t lecture about that subject, but rather takes the classic narrative approach of showing without telling. As we meet our protagonists, they’re dealing with a broken down car on an empty country road, on their way to work in the morning. A white policeman approaches and there’s immediate tension in the air. Like prisoners of a police state, the three women instantly straighten their hair, smooth out their dresses and produce identification without being asked. The lower their heads and speak with deference to the overweight, aggressive face of white male entitlement. As soon as they show the officer their NASA ID laminates, he begins to wax about “beating the Russians to space” and calls the recently-named Mercury Seven American heroes. Jackson lies about working with the astronauts, sensing an opening, and the tension slowly dissolves. In fact, the policeman not only helps them fix the car, he gives them a police escort to the Space Task Group, which causes Jackson (the most spunky and outspoken of the group) to proclaim that this is the most amazing day of her life. Straight away, we’re reminded of the culture of America in 1961, a rare time of national unity around one issue (space) and deep divisions around another (race), and told all we need to know about how one can influence the other.
(L to R) Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer)
The three women work as “computers” for the guidance and navigation division of NASA, crunching numbers and doing basic math. All well-educated with graduate degrees, some viewers might be surprised to learn that they aren’t the only women at NASA at the time – indeed, they aren’t even the only women of colour. The image in popular culture of clean-shaven men with crew cuts and white shirts with black ties is certainly followed here, in some cases, but the film shows us another side of space program, behind the scenes, where women did the jobs that electronic computers would later do. (This planned obsolescence becomes a plot point later on, following Vaughn’s efforts to learn Fortran and get an early IBM computer up and running.) It’s probably even more shocking to learn that NASA itself was segregated at the time, like all public institutions in Virginia. The issue of separate bathrooms becomes significant when, in the film’s primary plot, Johnson is promoted to work with analytical geometry in guidance headquarters, the only black face in a sea of white. Segregated high schools becomes a fight that Jackson takes on, in her efforts to earn an Engineering degree and put her talents to their fullest use (prompted by a character who calls himself, “A Polish jew whose parents died in a concentration camp,” to illustrate how far anyone can rise in this new America). And Vaughn has to deal with subtle and overt discrimination at the hands of her superior, who not only refuses to promote her to Supervisor of the computing division, but also insists on calling this older, grown woman by her first name rather than “Mrs. Vaughn”. Racial issues permeate the film, just as they permeated society, but times were changing and the urgency of NASA’s mission gave the organization the ability to leap ahead of history from time to time.
The white characters in the film are played by reliable Hollywood stars — an almost unrecognizable Kirsten Dunst plays a cold, prejudiced program manager, Jim Parsons (from The Big Bang Theory) is similarly cast against type as an arrogant, sexist, racist engineer and Kevin Costner brings his amiable, authoritative masculinity to the role of (fictional) Al Harrison, the head of the Space Task Group. Glen Powell is all smiles as John Glenn, the only astronaut we meet, and Costner essentially plays to his persona, but Dunst and Parsons make effective antagonists and never steal focus from the film’s trio of stars. Director Theodore Melfi shows us rich, intimate details of the protagonists’ private lives and resolutely takes their point of view through the story. (For example, audiences might be surprised to learn, about a third of the way into the film, that Johnson has three children and that the other two protagonists also have husbands and families. A lesser film would have insisted on placing those details in the foreground, but here we’re encouraged to think of these women as mathematicians and professional scientists first, and wives and mothers second. It’s a subtle but remarkably feminist approach to mainstream Hollywood cinema.)
Mostly set in vintage office buildings (and the attention to detail is remarkable, with a few exceptions, such as not showing characters using slide rules), the film does open up for a few nice special effects sequences, the best of which shows the launch of an early Soviet Vostok mission. Racial violence and news is kept strictly on TV, but Jackson’s husband is something of the voice of African American rage at the time, well justified by the overt and covert racism they face. The film finds time for a very G-rated love story between Johnson and her future husband, but for the most part, this is a film about people at work, doing math on chalkboards and paper, programming for an effort that many of them no doubt viewed less as science than as science fiction.
Of course, the film has a happy ending. It must, to be this kind of film, but by the time it arrives, the audience should be ready for it. This is a movie that wants the audience to leave with smiles on their faces, feeling uplifted. There was a time when most films aimed for that goal. It is nice, sometimes, to have that experience and to learn the true story of three women of colour, in the south, who despite their many challenges managed to make important contributions to the space race. (A PS card at the end of the film tells us that all the women kept working at NASA, contributing to the Apollo program and even the Space Shuttle. Though Jackson and Vaughn have since passed away, Katherine Jackson remains alive and well at the time of this writing at the age of 98, having recently received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.)