When Hollywood’s not unashamedly rehashing the ideas of old, it’s desperately seeking forgotten tales from history – small but important stories that never received the recognition they deserved.
Such a story is contained within the second film from director and Brooklyn-native Theodore Melfi, Hidden Figures. It’s a heart-warming tale about three women of extremely high-intellect. They’re physicist and mathematician Katherine Johnston (nee Goble), mathematician and computer programmer Dorothy Vaughan and aerospace engineer Mary Jackson.
Their story is a remarkable one, not just because they were women at a time of blatant sexism, and not merely due to being African-American at a time of appalling racial segregation. But the real interest here lies in the fact that their mathematical and visionary contributions were crucial to America’s race against Russia to put the first man on the Moon.
Johnston (Taraji P. Henson), Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Jackson (Janelle Monaé) are friends and colleagues working at NASA. The year is 1961, three years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 will deal a fatal blow to the legal oppression of African-American people in the United States. Each woman is incredibly strong-willed and, as history demonstrates, a true trailblazer.
Johnston’s gifts for analytical geometry see her become the first African-American women to join NASA’s Space Task Group, where she works under the crusty but ultimately kind Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and alongside snivelling head engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons).
Vaughan is the informal supervisor of NASA’s West Area Computers, a group of female African-American mathematicians that are called upon as computers. She works under the cold and watchful eye of supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst). When the first IBM 7090 computer arrives at Langley, Vaughan sees the writing on the wall and cleverly educates herself in computer programming, quickly training the women in her office and making them all equally indispensable.
Jackson wants to rise within the engineering ranks at NASA, but requires an engineering degree from an all-white school. She will have to convince a judge to allow her special permission to do so.
Based on the non-fiction book Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly, published only last year, Hidden Figures takes a rosy, sanitised, Hallmark approach to its subject matter. It largely deals with the inherent racism faced by the three women with playful humour (the ludicrousness of Johnston’s 40-minute round trip to the only “Colored Ladies Bathroom” on the other side of the NASA compound is used as a comic device, and hammered home on a number of occasions). That said, when Johnston is provided her own coffee jug so as not to share the brew of her fellow workers, it is a sobering moment.
The white characters of Hidden Figures, each a product of their times, are typically mean to our heroines to begin with, but ultimately see the error of their ways. Astronaut John Glenn (played with roguish charm by Glen Powell) is every bit the saintly and handsome all-American hero, sweet and kind to our protagonists from their first meeting.
In one of the film’s great contrivances (due to the fact that segregated facilities had been abolished within NASA by 1961), Costner’s hard-ass-with-a-heart-of-gold boss dramatically tears the “Colored Ladies Bathroom” sign off the wall with a crowbar (curiously, with a wide-eyed crowd looking on), declaring poetically: “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color.” Why this is not the movie’s poster tagline, I don’t know.
Melfi follows his debut movie, St. Vincent, with a film that knowingly pushes every emotional button, wringing every drop of sentiment from its unquestionably important subject matter. This is indeed a story worth telling, and sheds overdue light on this trio’s contribution to history. Hidden Figures is inherently inspiring, and the cast is invested and convincing, despite the heavy handed manipulations of the script.
But it’s a shame that the screenplay’s treatment is so resolutely saccharine and Melfi’s approach is void of any recognisable cinematic aesthetic. This is midday telemovie territory.
Despite its short-comings, Hidden Figures will be the dark horse at this year’s Academy Awards. Watch this space.