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Review: Hidden Figures (2016)

Hidden Figures (2016)

Directed by: Theodore Melfi

Premise: A drama about the African American women who worked for NASA in the early years of the space program. They defy prejudice and prove themselves as equals while NASA prepares to launch John Glenn into orbit.

What Works: Hidden Figures is a solid example of feel good entertainment. This is the kind of Hollywood movie that is designed to appeal to our sense of justice and everything in it serves that end. The movie centers upon three African American women and the movie explicitly and efficiently establishes that each of them has an extraordinary talent in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Any rational and just society would allow these women to achieve their full potential but a combination of racism and sexism conspire to marginalize them. As depicted in Hidden Figures, the African American women hired by NASA are confined to an office in the basement where they are relegated to solving math problems by hand. When the Russians launch the Sputnik satellite, NASA executives are sent into a panic and recruit additional help for the Space Task Group. Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is especially skilled at advanced mathematics and she is transferred to the group where she is the only person of color and one of only two women. Meanwhile, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) assumes supervisory duties over the women of the computer department but fights for recognition from the establishment and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) petitions to become an engineer. In each case, the women continually prove their merits but run up against prejudice and the film effectively plays upon a belief in dignity and meritocracy. Admirably, Hidden Figures is a bit more sophisticated about racism and sexism than the average Hollywood movie. Rarely do the white and/or male characters commit overt acts of prejudice. Instead a lot of the racism and sexism takes the form of quiet hostility and the filmmakers do a very good job of capturing that in the movie. The film is also distinguished by its three lead performances but especially Taraji P. Henson who is idiosyncratic but very likable as Katherine Johnson.

What Doesn’t: The film’s depiction of racism at NASA does not match the historical record. According to testimony from the real Katherine G. Johnson, her experiences at NASA were not as replete with racism as depicted in this film. According to Johnson, she was generally treated as a peer while working at NASA even while segregation laws were still active in Virginia. Some of the ongoing conflicts, such as the issue of segregated bathrooms, is exaggerated in this movie and the NASA supervisors played by Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst, who are the closest Hidden Figures gets to an overtly racist antagonist, are fictional constructions. The film also gives the false impression that these women, and in particular Katherine Johnson, worked out the problems of space flight all by themselves. In reality, the challenges were solved by large teams of NASA employees working cooperatively. While a certain amount of artistic license is inherent to any dramatic work, the alterations of Hidden Figures cause the movie to fall short as a dramatization of history. The job of artistic representations of history is to give an accurate overall impression of the people and times that it recreates. Hidden Figures pays tribute to the scientific and social accomplishments of these women—which are considerable and have been wrongly marginalized and ignored—but the film mischaracterizes the culture of NASA at this time for the sake of narrative expediency. This is a bit insulting to the legacy of NASA and to the people who worked there at the time.

Bottom Line: Hidden Figures is a solid crowd pleaser that effectively appeals to the audience’s instincts for dignity and meritocracy. As a piece of historical filmmaking it is flawed but Hidden Figures is an enjoyable movie that raises the profile of some underappreciated women.

Episode: #631 (January 22, 2017)