Hidden Figures tells the tales of three incredible black women employed by NASA in the early 1960s at a time when the American space programme was taking shape and beginning to send men into space. The biographical film tells of their setbacks at the hands of segregation and oppression, and beautifully shows their triumphs over these setbacks in an overall uplifting tale. Taraji P. Henson plays mathematical child genius Katherine Goble, the first black woman on the Space Task Group team, with her work being hugely influential to the safety of the first men into space, Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan, an unofficial supervisor to a group of black women working as ‘computers’ in a segregated wing of NASA, and Janelle Monáe plays Mary Jackson, a quick-witted woman with aspirations to become an engineer, a job for which she would be forced to overcome multiple hurdles.
Karl Zielinski: ‘If you were a white male, would you wish to be an engineer?’
Mary Jackson: ‘I wouldn’t have to. I’d already be one.’
The film was an empowering and inspiring look into the lives of the characters, and offered interesting commentary on the ways in which they faced adversity and segregation. A standout in this regard is an early scene in which the three black females encounter a white male police officer when their car breaks down. It is clear to see that this particular moment was considered important because of the current climate in the United States with the ongoing debates surrounding police brutality, and the anxieties his involvement posed were clearly to bring attention to this. He did, however, react in a most decent manner, and this became a running staple of much of the movie: it seemed to soften its political commentary in favour of solid biographical storytelling. Most of the group’s problems come from the black men in their lives, with Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), a potential love interest for Goble’s, being immediately rude to Goble’s and underestimating her abilities, and Jackson’s husband Levi Jackson (Aldis Hodge) doing the same. It is this focus on the lives of the black people at the heart of the film and their ultimately human stories that are the biggest of political statements within the movie, with Kirsten Dunst’s Vivian Mitchell acting as much of an antagonist for her condescending attitude towards the group as the surrounding political landscape in of itself.
I am heartened to see that Octavia Spencer has been nominated for a Best Supporting Actress award at the 2017 Oscars, as her performance was so very well rounded. She pulled off her characters more funny moments when needed and she provided a believable characterisation that made moments of rule-breaking seem just as believable as her moments of guidance and supervision. Frankly though, the snubbing of Taraji P. Henson in the Best Actress category is more than the ‘disappointing’ director Theodore Melfi has recently spoken out about; it was a downright miscarriage of justice. Henson’s performance was versatile and powerful as she displayed the character’s fierce intellect and incredible passion with a truly moving construction. These performances were vital to the successful portrayal of the inspirational screenplay and their depth and gravitas vital to anchoring the picture in the reality of their amazing accomplishments. The screenplay’s separation of such thought-provoking cinema with humour and irony aided this as it helped each of the characters to seem so very real, and was actually the source of tears for particularly good reasons at multiple points throughout the film.
Stylistically one of my favourite cinematography choices was the use of two trends which I have seen within recent films, and which I think elevate the story, making the films seem all the more real and all the more moving. These trends are the inclusions of the real-life archive footage within the narrative, reminding the viewer that these events did actually happen. This was used to good effect in Jackie (2016) and used at the end of the narrative in Hacksaw Ridge (2016). Both methods are used with stunning effect in Hidden Figures and serve as emotional anchor points at which I suggest you grab your tissues.
Hidden Figures isn’t the perfect movie. There are moments within the story that worked to exaggerate true-to-life prejudices when it would have been more poignant to simply focus on the already disgusting prejudices that existed within the true story. Such as a moment is where Goble goes to work in the white space that is the Space Task Group and she is assumed to be a cleaner. Whilst this does serve a purpose of metaphorically showing the inherent prejudices which many in the room would have felt, it may have been better portrayed in another way, such as through criticism of her work. Furthermore, there was a scene with Al Harrison (played by Kevin Costner) in which he took a sledgehammer to the restroom sign which read ‘Coloured Ladies Room’. This scene looked great on film, and showed him to be a true pioneer in the internal civil rights movement within NASA; he even got a badass line: ‘Here at NASA, we all pee the same colour’. However, unfortunately this didn’t actually happen, and instead Katherine Goble defiantly used the white women’s bathrooms. It can be argued that this was used to show that internal change was coming for NASA, and to use the white character in this way could be visualising how ‘not all’ white people stood in the way of justice and some obviously helped to change the tide, but I personally would have preferred Goble to be shown using the white ladies room, as this would have shown her to be less timid and seems seems to be an act that is just as extraordinary and (in many ways) cinematic.
Another fictious element of the film is Jim Parson’s white character Paul Stafford, a man who embodies many of the social problems which Goble is forced to overcome, such as sexism and racism. No doubt characters like him will have existed, though I believe it would have been better if Parson’s had played Dr Jack Crenshaw, a white Southern man, who was a real life space pioneer working in a similar role to Goble. Whilst Katherine Goble’s ability cannot be overstated, she is portrayed to be the only person who can do the numbers, yet in reality Crenshaw did a sizeable amount of the work. If these two had worked together, rather than Parsons’s character working against Goble’s every move, the film could have been more life-like, yet would have still contained the amazingly inspirational message that was clearly present throughout. It’s not that the film felt at all untrue, as it actually felt incredibly realistic and so very moving, but to use the real-life characters’ names, in their real-life jobs, would have been all the more satisfying, as it would have allowed a more true account of the entire scenario.
Conclusively, I would recommend anyone and everyone to go and see the film. Whilst it does tell the story of on Goble’s mathematical achievements, understanding maths is certainly no pre-requisite to enjoyment of the film – in fact, many of the men in the department do not fully understand the maths either, which is always reassuring. The few fictional plot points aren’t enough to detract from the overall positive experience either, as the film is incredibly moving, inspirational and well made. The film showcases some phenomenal talents – the cast is flawless, and feels incredibly well chosen. Each performance is as good as the next – and every character (even Stafford) is likeable by the end. Take the narrative with a tiny pinch of salt, but embrace the characters and their exceptional abilities to overcome adversity with your arms wide open. The world needs more films of this calibre, telling the unknown stories of Hidden Figures.
Written by Elle Cole
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