Film Review: Hidden Figures
Hidden Figures (2016) Director Theodore Melfi
By Belle McIntyre
This is such an amazing, long overdue story of the unacknowledged accomplishments and contributions of a group of brilliant, dedicated African-American women in the Jim Crow south. The race for space in the 1960’s was a time of great national pride and inspired a unifying spirit in the country. A massive amount of money and manpower was being expended and apparently the brightest and most talented mathematicians available were women of color which forced the ultra-conservative people running NASA at Langley in Hampton, Virginia to break their own color barrier. The fact that they were in segregated work spaces was a vestige that still existed at Langley.
The story of the women focuses on three particularly appealing and outstanding members of this elite group. Catherine Goble (Taraji P. Hensen) has been plucked out of the pool of “human computers” to work on getting John Glenn safely into space and back on earth alive. She finds herself in a chilly, hostile environment of mostly white men working under the relentless gaze of Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), the head of the Space Task Group. There is immense pressure to figure out huge quantities of data having to do with rocket trajectories and Catherine has a gift for analytic geometry which she can do at warp speed. In short, she is essential.
Her friend and colleague, Dorothy Vaughn (Olivia Spencer) has been the supervisor of the West Computing Group for some years and has made herself indispensable by getting ahead of her possible obsolescence in the face of developments by IBM to create computers to do the math which they have been doing by hand. She has taught herself and her team how to program. There is a wonderful moment when the men get their first non-human computer. And no one has a clue what to do with it. Voila, Dorothy and her team found to be essential.
Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), who has engineering skills and aspirations so fierce that she challenges a segregated college in court, in order to be allowed to get her degree. She has been emboldened by the recognition of her talent by her supervisor while she was working on the Mercury capsule prototype. She gets her engineering degree attending night classes while she is working at NASA.
The book upon which the film is based has just been released. It was written by Margot Lee Shetterly whose father worked at Langley at this time and she was a little girl and saw but did not understand the significance of the women. While the story is so uplifting and inspiring it is simultaneously a shocking and shameful reminder of our ugly history of racism. The indignities and casual assaults on their humanity are unforgivable. Here we have another example of history being written by white men. At least now they can have their moment. Better late than never.
The directing is lively and the upbeat soundtrack written and performed by Pharrell Williams, also one of the producers, keeps it from being heavy handed. Melfi manages to make writing equations on a chalkboard riveting cinema with authentic-looking cinematography and flawless period clothing, cars and sets. Well-done indeed.