Directed by Theodore Melfi
Starring Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst
Released on 17th February 2017
On paper, the story of three women mathematicians who played key roles in getting the first American into space doesn’t sound like much. But that’s just half the story. Because this is 1961, the setting is Virginia and, as we saw in Loving, a segregated state at the time. That meant all manner of humiliating restrictions for African Americans, including separate washrooms, water fountains and seats on the bus.
Hidden Figures portrays three black women blazing a trail both for themselves and for all the women, both white and of colour, that came after them. Being female made things difficult enough in the workplace, where they were regarded as subordinates and their abilities overlooked. Being black quadrupled their disadvantage, so much so that when they walked in the room, there was silence, with all eyes trained on them. And not friendly ones either. Because just about everybody else in that room was a man – in NASA in the regulation white shirt and dark tie – and women were, at best, taking notes at the back of the room. Playing an active part in a meeting was unheard of.
The hidden figures of the title are all based on real women: Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), three friends who all worked for NASA. Katherine is a maths genius, who was the first black woman to graduate from her university, Dorothy the temporary supervisor of the black ‘computers’, or maths specialists – all black, all women and who work in a pool in a separate building from the whites – and Mary is another member of the pool, who decides she wants to be an engineer. They all have their struggles, all have responsibilities at home and all have to overcome sexual and racial prejudice to achieve their personal goals.
It’s a story which appeals to any group which has experienced prejudice, the proverbial glass ceiling or any other form of inequality. One that gives us three powerful examples of how to overcome those barriers through determination and ability. One that tells its story with intelligence, understanding without shouting the messages too loudly. And one that inspires.
It’s also a feelgood film which, given its subject matter, comes as something as a surprise. And, at times, it’s just a bit too feelgood. But that doesn’t prevent you leaving the cinema with a smile of satisfaction on your face, knowing that you’ve watched something good, something that ticked all the boxes. Without overdoing the maths analogy too much, the Hidden Figures equation goes something like this: inspirational story + intelligent script + strong acting = a winner! Katherine would make mincemeat of my maths ….
It genuinely has the lot, from its ensemble cast to a storyline with tension, confrontation, success, romance, humour and, oh yes, some maths as well. Although it doesn’t matter very much if that’s not your strong point. In the effective ensemble cast, Octavia Spencer quietly stands out as Dorothy, who masters Café Fortran from a library book and goes on to be the first black woman supervisor at NASA. She’s a whizz when it comes to repairing cars, as well as having a natural gift for computers (both the machines and the people) and a quiet way of asserting herself. When yet another conversation with her boss, Mrs Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) ends in her not being considered for the role of supervisor – again – Dunst assures Dorothy that she has nothing against her. What she’s saying is clear: she doesn’t just mean Dorothy, but black people. And what Dorothy is saying is equally clear when she inoffensively responds “I’m sure you don’t think you do.” It resonates.
It comes complete with set pieces, such as Katherine showing a meeting room full of men how to calculate the go/no-go for John Glenn’s (Glen Powell) landing site – and getting Glenn’s complete backing. The morning when she goes to get a coffee from the communal pot and finds she’s been allocated another one marked ‘colored’. When she comes back from the half mile trek to the only restroom for black women on the site and her boss, Harrison (Kevin Costner), wants to know why she keeps disappearing for so long. Soaking wet, she loses her rag and explains at the top of her voice – which leads to the next scene, when he demolishes the sign for the “colored ladies’ washroom” so that the problem doesn’t exist. He’s senior enough, so he can do that.
But the real reason why this so fascinating is that, until now, it’s a story that’s never been heard. At the end, we see what the real trio looked like and what they went on to do, both professionally and personally. Taraji P Henson actually met the real Katherine, who saw the finished film, gave her approval to Henson’s portrayal of her and then wondered why anybody would want to make a film about her story. Says a lot about her and we see some of that self-effacing attitude at the start of the film. That the three women outwardly seem to accept their place, both as women and black people. Inside, however, it’s a very different matter – and that’s what comes to the fore.
Hidden Figures is released in cinemas on Friday, 17 February and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 16 February.