Hidden Figures (2017) – Movie Review
Directed by: Theodore Melfi
Written by: Theodore Melfi & Allison Schroeder
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Mahershala Ali & Glen Powell
Music: Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams & Benjamin Wallfisch
Release Date: February 17th 2017
As progressivism becomes the new black, we’re starting to see media reflect the population that are exposed to their output. In the past decade we’ve been privy to numerous biopics re-telling stories from marginalised groups that a few years previously would never have been made, such as ‘12 Years A Slave‘, ‘Dallas Buyers Club‘, ‘Selma‘ and more. A storm of forces have also allowed a movie like ‘Hidden Figures‘ to become quite profound in its mere existence as women (and especially women of colour) are being pushed out of STEM fields in 2017 due to sexism and racism, we find a story about the previously unseen women who propelled the United States of America to the stars.
Based off the book “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race” by Margot Lee Shetterly, ‘Hidden Figures‘ became an Oscar front-runner thanks to its great box-office success domestically as well as the backing of some very influential names with Pharrell Williams producing and an acclaimed cast. Does ‘Hidden Figures‘ give a portrayal befitting of the African American women of NASA or will their story continue to be unheard?
It’s the 1960s and racial segregation is still alive and well in the United States. It’s also the middle of the “Space Race” between the Soviet Union and America with NASA wanting to be the first to successfully get a man out of the atmosphere. Joining NASA as a mathematician, engineer and supervisor we find Katherine Goble (Henson), Mary Jackson (Monáe) and Dorothy Vaughn (Spencer) but they’re forced to work in the “Coloured” section of NASA headquarters and are belittled by the predominantly white staff members. However as the Soviets start to overtake the U.S., the head of the Space Task Group at NASA, Al Harrison (Costner) starts to see the limitations of segregating his workforce and change begins to take place from within.
Even though there have been numerous films depicting racial segregation in recent years, it always remains chilling and rage-inducing when seeing it recreated, especially since ‘Hidden Figures‘ isn’t set that long ago, relatively speaking. The opening scene of the film sets the tone very well with the three lead women being questioned by police at the side of the road for little justification with the white, male officer only relenting when he realises the trio work with NASA. However, the film depicts a time where Americans hated Russians so much, they almost didn’t mind African Americans being a part of society and helping beat them in the Space Race, which is pretty dismal when you really think about it.
‘Hidden Figures‘ as a story lends itself well to unique protagonists as it’s not often we’re given scientists and mathematicians as the heroes in mainstream media. Normally it’s the Astronauts that are front and centre, but ‘Hidden Figures‘ wisely eschews that approach to depict those who get the least “romantic” or “exciting” jobs of calculating trajectory, building the ships, organising the paper-work etc. However, using the backdrop of 1960s America and the Space Race (specifically, the launch of Mercury-Atlas 6 piloted by John Glenn) helps add additional drama and conflict. It’s hard not to root for the titular figures, not just in their jobs of a successful probe launch but also earning the respect of their peers and receiving basic decency. As a result, there’s a few “white villains” to hate portrayed by Jim Parsons as a head engineer and Kirsten Dunst a supervisor as well as a “white saviour” character in Kevin Costner’s Al Harrison. Harrison, while initially sceptical of integration, starts to relent and becomes an ally to the leads.
But with Al Harrison, we find an elephant in the room.
While ‘Hidden Figures‘ is based off a nonfiction book which was based off of real people and real events, it’s hard to ignore the historical inaccuracies. Namely that Al Harrison is actually a composite character created for the film and many of his actions in the movie didn’t actually take place. The aforementioned “white villain” characters didn’t exist either. In fact, the movie takes many liberties with the true story. One of the film’s standout sequences has Katherine having to walk half a mile away to the “Coloured” bathroom, from one end of NASA Langley Campus to the other and having to rant to Al Harrison about how humiliating it is.
“There are no coloured bathrooms in this building, or any building outside the West Campus, which is half a mile away. Did you know that? I have to walk to Timbuktu just to relieve myself! Picture that, Mr. Harrison. My uniform, skirt below the knees and my heels. And simple necklace pearls. Well, I don’t own pearls. Lord knows you don’t pay the coloured enough to afford pearls! And I work like a dog day and night, living on coffee from a pot none of you want to touch!” – Katherine Johnson
It’s a really powerful scene and it’s easily Taraji P. Henson’s “Oscar Clip” moment, but in real life, this was something that Janelle Monáe’s character would have to deal with, not Henson’s. And Henson’s character, Katherine, actually used the “Whites Only” bathroom for years unknowingly before being confronted on it and simply ignoring the comments and continuing to use the bathroom as normal. Nothing like that finds its way into ‘Hidden Figures‘.
Now, this topic is completely subjective and people have their own limits as to historical inaccuracies and whether or not they’re a detriment to the end product. It may not bother you, it may bother myself or vice versa. However, personally it feels strange that the movie is LITERALLY titled ‘Hidden Figures‘ yet alters and distorts several key events. This can be attributed to the filmmakers acquiring the rights to Margot Lee Shetterly’s book when it was just a treatment. The book was published in September 2016, long after filming had concluded and only 2 months before its first screening, which would explain the differences between the source material and the finished film. Perhaps if 20th Century Fox had waited a year before making the movie, we could be dealing with a more true-to-life story that actually brings these “Hidden Figures” out of the metaphorical shadows, but as it is right now it feels like the ‘Hidden Figures‘ movie is more of a jumping-off point for later research to be done by the viewer by reading Shetterly’s nonfiction book.
That’s not to undermine the achievements of the film and the accuracies it does contain as well as giving the audience plenty of time with the main characters outside of work and exploring their friendship and their love-lives (with Mahershala Ali being charming as hell as a military officer who later marries Katherine). An opening prologue shows Katherine being held back from an education due to Jim Crow laws, but still managing to earn herself a degree in mathematics. We also have effective sub-plots chronicling Dorothy Vaughn becoming NASA’s first African American supervisor as well as Mary Jackson having to attend an initially all-white school in order to pursue a degree in engineering before becoming NASA’s first African American female engineer as well as the first in United States History (although her sub-plot is heavily changed for the movie, another historical inaccuracy). Putting great stories like this front and centre is where ‘Hidden Figures‘ shines and, in its own way, is a success on its own terms.
The ensemble cast do great with the material with Taraji P. Henson being a captivating on-screen presense, Janelle Monáe being classy as hell and also Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner playing to their strengths and embodying archetypes that they have previously in their careers, but they’re still put to great use in ‘Hidden Figures‘. Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst are given rather one-note characters but they still do well with the material considering that they’re portraying ciphers for America’s intolerance at the time.
‘Hidden Figures‘ intentions are undeniably pure and it’s a story absolutely worth telling and it also does a good job at making literal rocket science engaging and accessible. It also has some striking imagery such as the coloured women being relegated to one side when meeting the white astronauts and shots of Taraji P. Henson running in the rain across NASA campus because she needs to use the bathroom and these images still hit home.
Unlike most films about racial segregation, the film is rated PG by the BBFC and its depiction of events is catering to a more general audience as opposed to strictly adults like ‘12 Years A Slave‘, ‘Django Unchained‘ and ‘Selma‘ so while there’s no visceral shock-sequences like there were in the aforementioned films, it’s still a painful reminder of things that took place only a generation ago and the remnants can still be found in contemporary society. If nothing else, ‘Hidden Figures‘ will now surely become a near-permanent fixture of “Black History Month” sessions in younger schools across America.
The 1960s period detail is well implemented and the cinematography, while rather basic, still gives the audience memorable, heroic shots of the main characters doing what they do best; science and maths. The highlight of the production is the funky soundtrack with tracks from Pharrell Williams overseeing the music department along with Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. Pharrell’s original tracks are ear-worms and are also very flexible such as the track “Able” which is utilised both heroically and ironically throughout the film.
‘Hidden Figures‘ is an uplifting drama which I’m sure a generation of women of all races will watch and potentially find a keen interest in STEM fields, or just the motivation to stand up against injustices against them. As a statement of intent, ‘Hidden Figures‘ is effective, well-acted, well produced and moving film but as a representation of its central subject feels inadequate and also misrepresentative, though not maliciously. That’s not an objective, inherent flaw but it makes the movie feel like an introductory piece to its source material even though it likely won’t be viewed that way by the masses. The titular “Hidden Figures” are no longer hidden, but there’s still plenty of detail and minutia that can be taught that this film doesn’t quite deal with.
I give ‘Hidden Figures‘ 3 and a half stars out of 5.
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Posted: 13th Jan 18