The contributions of three African American women to the U.S. space program in the 1950s is the subject of Hidden Figures. The central protagonist of this biography is Katherine G. Johnson, the mathematician who calculated flight trajectories for Project Mercury when John Glenn made three orbits around the Earth in 1962. She worked in the West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center. Her efforts supported the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor agency to NASA. Assisting are her fellow mathematicians Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Hidden Figures is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. In actuality, this was adapted from a 55-page proposal which would explain why the movie contains a lot of things that were created for dramatic effect. (http://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/hidden-figures/)
The institutionalized racism that Katherine and her colleagues had to face while working in the segregated environment is a significant part of Hidden Figures. The many indignities they suffered are in the details. The production offers a proven amalgamation of drama with light touches of comedy for a mass audience. The movie uses humor to gently push its agenda. We see a black woman in a colorful dress against a sea of conformity: lots of white men in white shirts and uniform ties. Thanks to the costume designer for color coding it for us. These are her oppressors, particularly in the fictional character of Paul Stafford as portrayed by Jim Parsons. He’s a hissable villain and someone designed for moviegoers to jeer. But white women can be just as racist too. Kirsten Dunst’s Vivian Mitchell, another fictional character, is a condescending supervisor that suppresses Dorothy’s chances for advancement. Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), director of the Space Task Group, is a bit more enlightened. He’s actually based on a real person, well three anyway. Incidentally, Costner is slowly becoming this generation’s Henry Fonda always seeming to be the right side of history in racial dramas (Black or White, McFarland, USA).
For example, the fact that black women had separate bathrooms from white women is shown. For a modern observer of the past, this must seem pretty bizarre. Why this was the case is never explained. “That’s just how things are” is the point of view. Instead, we’re given little montages set to Pharrell Williams’ song “Runnin” while she has to make her dashes to a bathroom seemingly on the other side of town and then sprint all the way back to her desk. When nature calls it might take someone 5-10 minutes, for her it was a brutal part of her day. This all comes to the fore when Kevin Costner as her oblivious white boss, questions her on her absences. She explains. Cut to a scene of him taking a crowbar to the “colored ladies room” sign. “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color,” He says. That he’s the one to right this wrong never actually happened, but the movie chooses to portray it this way. His quick transformation into the noble white savior is a bit exasperating, to say the least.
In other areas, the narrative portrays the contributions of these women as important because the Americans must better the Russians. Their satellite Sputnik is the first to orbit the earth in 1957. Curses, the Reds won again! The script practically shouts this sentiment while a somber room of people watches the event on a TV. Apparently, some people are worried that the Soviets can now spy on America. If you’re unclear as to how this is supposed to happen, don’t look to this movie for specifics. Just know that the space race is a competition where we must “beat” the Russians like an Olympic event. Topping other countries with our space program is just supposed to be understood as an inherent desire.
Hidden Figures follows the narrative formula of many sports movies. We get the injustice, the teasing, the dirty looks, the undervalued appreciation for their ability and then that come from behind moment where everyone is proven wrong. It’s all served in a pleasing, well-photographed family friendly creation. The overlooked advances from individuals forgotten by history can provide a cutting edge perspective into a historical event. As a piece of entertainment, Hidden Figures is entertaining enough. However, the sentimental uplift of this Hallmark greeting card of a movie doesn’t scratch beneath the surface to plumb the depths of their experience. I can imagine that these women faced egregious behavior that undermined their human dignity. One would think Langley Research Center would be a place where analysis and intellectual ability was focused on much more than skin color. Apparently not. The screenplay doesn’t examine harder. I wish it had delved deeper and examined why. This cursory study is content to present predictable tropes that are de rigueur for any tale of an underdog. These brave women deserve a powerful story, but Hidden Figures never expands beyond a shallow exploration to get to the heart of their struggle. The screenplay by Allison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi is an inspirational saga of intellect triumphing over racism in a PG-rated tale. Hidden Figures is a feel-good diversion that will hopefully inspire people to study further.