Hidden Figures (2016)

In Hidden Figures Theodore Melfi reveals the extraordinary hidden story of the African American women maths geniuses who got America to the moon.

OK Computer

by Alexa Dalby

Hidden Figures

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Hidden Figures is the long-overdue setting-the-record-straight telling of the extraordinary true story of three black American women who overcame racism to become crucial figures in NASA in the early days of America’s space race.

Taraji P Henson (Person of Interest) is Katherine G Johnson, brilliant at maths and in particular analytic geometry. She is one of a group of women in NASA’s racially segregated unit of black women ‘computers’ – the job title given to the gifted women who, with the aid of adding machines, did the behind-the-scenes mathematical calculations needed in the pre-computer age. She is seconded to the team sending America’s first astronauts into space in Cold War competition against the Russians, where, despite faultlessly calculating trajectories for the spacecraft she experiences both racism and sexism from her all-male colleagues.

Octavia Spencer (Bad Santa 2) is Dorothy Vaughan, the hugely competent de facto supervisor of the black women’s unit, yet because of institutional racism, this cannot be recognised. She is visionary enough to recognise the potential of the newly installed IBM computer. Instead of waiting for it to put the women in her section out of work, she teaches herself the early computer programming language Fortran and thus to the surprise of the organisation, prepares the women to be the first to be ready to work with it in the future.

Janelle Monáe (Moonlight) is Mary Jackson, the sparkiest of the three women, who fulfils her ambition to became the first African American female aeronautical engineer. To do so, she had to fight segregation through the courts in order to attend the evening classes she needed.

Among the supporting characters, Kevin Cosner is Al Harrison, the head of the team sending astronaut John Glenn into orbit as the person who recognises Johnson’s ability regardless of race. But the addition of his physically dismantling the segregated toilets that are a blot on her achievements is a slight screenwriting liberty of white intervention. John Glenn himself (Glen Powell) is portrayed as unprejudiced, and setting an example by giving the Johnson and the other women due respect. Jim Parsons (Big Bang Theory) has an unsatisfying, snidy part as Johnson’s racially prejudiced supervisor and Kirsten Dunst, as the human resources person, is another unconscious exponent of institutional racism. Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) is surprisingly sensitive as the National Guardsman who courts Johnson.

The story itself needs no embellishment to be rivetting and Theodore Melfi’s direction is straightforward and unflashy, enlivened by a powerful soul original soundtrack by Pharrell Williams that captures the period feel. The women’s story unfolds in an easy to follow, feel-good way that doesn’t dwell on the self-evident injustice of its subject. It is so inspirational that it doesn’t need to. Allison Schroeder’s fluid screenplay is based on the book of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly.

Hidden Figures is released on 17 February in the UK. It won the Screen Actors Guild award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast, was nominated for the BAFTAs and Golden Globes, and is nominated for three Academy Awards.

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