‘I’ ON CULTURE
I finally found a movie that moved me and that I could also enjoy: Hidden Figures. It is a historical movie tracing three women who played a major role in our early space program while facing intense discrimination both because they were black and because they were women. But unlike many productions in this vein, there are no gimmicks, no “special feel-good” additions.
It is a movie that celebrates America while closely examining an era that was terribly discriminatory. It does not excuse the discrimination in any way; it clearly shows the extra hurdles that the central characters faced. But it is because of women like the ones at the center of the film that we have progressed as we have.
The movie is based on a book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. Three talented women, mathematician Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and computer supervisor Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), work for NASA at the Langley Research Center in Virginia. The facility is segregated (separate bathrooms and drinking fountains for people of different races), and it is the white men who run the show. All three women are held back, perhaps as much by sexism as racism. Kirsten Dunst, a manager there, said: “That’s NASA for you. Fast with rocket ships, slow with advancement.”
Johnson, a math genius, works as a “computer,” people who did the math calculations required for getting our spaceship into orbit. America had fallen behind in the space race and we were trying to lift astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) into space for his ride. The mathematics required, based on calculus (happily, the film spends very little time explaining this) had to be done by people since computers were only just coming into their own. The introduction of a giant computer was traumatic for the human math specialists. Ironically, our smartphones have more power than those old, giant machines.
Although Johnson is at the center of things, the two other women also deal with racism. Jackson, who eventually became NASA’s first black female engineer, finds all sort of bureaucratic hurdles to being a certified engineer. When someone paternalistically downgrades her, she points out that if she were a white man she would already be an engineer. Vaughan, passed over constantly for promotion, also has to worry about the impact of computers on her work. She eventually became NASA’s first African-American manager.
The movie, directed by Theodore Melfi, does not attempt to turn them into superwomen. They live more or less normal lives. They know that as they break down barriers, they are helping others who follow them. They are real people. They support each other; if one works late, the others wait for her in the parking lot to drive home together.
And they do have home lives; this is not just the story of a few geniuses. While there can be some jealousy, for example over Johnson’s being moved up, the other women recognize that they are affected by each other’s progress. Dorothy, most at risk, sticks her neck out for her workers, most of whom are not black or women.
If this sounds like one of those sad movies about overcoming hurdles, it is not that at all. The script by Melfi and Allison Schroeder focuses mainly on the three remarkable women and their rise in status.
The performances are excellent as well. The three lead actresses are really good. Without major crises to face, they become “regular people,” ones we really like. The audience was clearly rooting for them with cheers for their best moments. Kevin Costner was good as Johnson’s sympathetic boss. I particularly liked Mahershala Ali as Johnson’s supportive husband. Powell as John Glenn was also quite winning.
Another bonus for the film: It has a really good soundtrack by Pharrell Williams, Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. That and a nice dose of humor keep things moving well.
I really liked the movie. While it did tweak things a bit to improve the drama, it was close to the facts as told in the book. I much prefer seeing films about real heroes instead of fake superheroes. This is a good movie. I highly recommend it.