Hidden Figures is a pretty good film on an absolutely tremendous subject. Viewing it, you’re overwhelmed by the story and the acting and the musical score, and some outstanding characterizations; that’s the initial impression. And then its impact fades, and the weaknesses of its comparatively pedestrian screenplay come to the forefront. It’s a story about the early years of NASA and the space program and the civil rights movement, and the contributions of some extraordinary women. That’s enough to carry the movie, at least initially.
In the early 1960s, the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia was tasked with computing the trajectories for the rockets and space capsules of the Mercury space program. A lot of those calculations were done by ‘computers.’ A ‘computer’ back then wasn’t understood to be a machine, but a person; someone with math skills, who could quickly and accurately do calculations. They had a machine too, what we would call a computer, only they called it an IBM. And nobody knew how to use it.
The Langley site was strictly segregated, with a West building for African-American ‘computers,’ almost all of them women, and an East building for the main NASA scientists, all of them white men. The film tells the story of Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), three ambitious and talented African-American women who wanted to be part of the space program, like most patriotic 1960s Americans did.
Jackson gets a job in the engineering program, designing the space capsule. She’s held back by the fact that she doesn’t have an engineering degree. There’s a program available through NASA, but she can’t quality for it until she passes a remedial class offered through night school at a local high school. A white high school. So she files a lawsuit to become the first African-American woman in a Virginia white high school class. That’s a terrific story right there, and it’s also the story that gets the least attention in this film, because the other two main stories are even better.
Dorothy Vaughan, meanwhile, is doing the work of a supervisor, but does not have the job title, seniority or salary of one. She’s been given a supervisor’s responsibilities, and has a leadership personality; she can do the job. But she’s Black; NASA doesn’t seem able to recognize her. That’s her battle; to become an supervisor. In the meantime, she teaches herself Fortran, studying IBM programming on her own time. And so she sneaks into the IBM control room, and quietly programs the machine in the evenings. And when NASA needs precise and fast calculations done, she knows how to get the computer machine working to provide them, and how to teach her ‘computers’ how to program.
Another great story, right? But the movie’s third story is the best of all. Katherine Goble (who marries mid-film and changes her name to Johnson), is a math whiz, who has skills that get her assigned to the main building, and to a team made up entirely of white men. The main mathematician there is a guy named Paul Stafford, played here by Jim Parsons. (It did rather crack me up; the idea of Sheldon Cooper as a (shudder) rocket scientist). Anyway, Stafford has no faith in her, blocks her efforts at every turn. Is he racist? Sexist? Sure, like most white dudes in 1961.
Meanwhile, the boss, the head of Langley, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), cares about one thing only; getting astronauts into space, and back again safely. If that requires that he become a civil rights pioneer, so be it.
In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Katherine needs to go to the bathroom at work, and the nearest colored women’s rest room is a half mile away. And so, a couple of times a day, she has to walk, in high heels, over half a mile just to take care of that most basic need. There’s a women’s restroom in the building where she works, but it’s for white women only. When an exasperated Harrison asks why she has to take such long breaks, it’s difficult for her to tell him–gender, race and workplace protocols all collide. Plus, it’s raining out, and she’s soaking. She finally does, though; she is able to speak out, and tell the truth. It’s one of the best scenes in the movie, and leads to a scene where Harrison personally rips a ‘colored’ sign off a bathroom door. Thereafter, all the women are free to use whatever restroom is closest.
There are a lot of bathroom scenes in the film, including a nice one between Spencer and Kirsten Dunst, who plays the supervisor of all NASA women at the facility. They’re both terrific in that scene, as Dunst is forced to confront her own racism in that most basic of settings.
So there’s a lot about this film to savor. Outstanding acting performances, and a powerful story; what’s not to like?
It’s just so conventional, though, and in ways that really do harm the telling of these stories. It’s a Hollywood biopic; of course, the heroines have to be superhuman, and the villains made of cardboard. This is clearest in the scenes with Katherine and the other mathematicians with whom she works. Every major breakthrough comes from her. We get the distinct impression that the mathematicians at NASA are not top talent, but in fact the remedial class in math school. There’s one scene, for example, where Katherine points out that their task is to turn the Mercury capsule’s orbit from an elliptical orbit to a parabolic orbit. I’m not kidding; the other mathematicians in the room stare at her like they’ve never heard of a parabola before. Jim Parson’s Paul Stafford literally moves his lips as he tries to figure out some calculation Katherine Johnson has put up on their communal chalkboard. Honestly, it looks like the Mercury program would be in much better shape if they fired all their white guy mathematicians, and just let the one Black lady do the whole job.
The same thing’s true of the scenes where Dorothy Vaughan figures out how to use the IBM. She’s got a library book on Fortran, and this brand new mainframe, and she figures out how to make the thing work, while the guys from IBM who are setting it up stand by, flummoxed.
Believe me, I’m not making some kind of alt-right argument about how egregiously this movie disrespects white people. Not even remotely. What I am saying is that the movie’s approach, in which Katherine Johnson is the Michael Jordan of mathematicians, and the guys she’s working with are the New York Generals ends up diminishing her actual accomplishments. Which is the better story: Black Supergenius astounds a village of idiots, or a brilliant African-American woman holds her own, and gains the respect of some of the top mathematicians in the world, and becomes their esteemed teammate and colleague? In 1961?
The truth makes a better story than a fictionalized, distorted version of the truth that this film, sadly, relies on. And I know you’ve only got two hours to tell your story, and that narratively, you need to conflate some characters or it just becomes unwieldy. I know that. But in fact, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson were not particularly close friends, and the scientists they worked with were not dopes, and their contributions to the Mercury program, though significant and ground-breaking, were not as all-encompassing as this film makes them appear. Tell that story, the real story. They were remarkable women, and their achievements were extraordinary, especially in that time and place. They were patriotic Americans, and civil rights pioneers, and I’m thrilled that this movie got made. I just wish it were a better screenplay.
Still a fascinating, entertaining and educational piece, and well worth your time. Just not as good as it could have been, and should have been.