Hidden Figures (2016)

Hidden Figures poster

If you’ve followed this blog for a while you’ll know I have more than a slight interest in the ‘space race’ of the 1950s and 60s, and more recent space exploration, from The Right Stuff to Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 and beyond (including having visited the Space Shuttle Endeavour in Los Angeles) but Theodore Melfi’s 2016 film Hidden Figures tells a crucial part of that story that has often gone drastically under reported.

When I think back on it now all the films I’ve seen up to this point on the subject are largely populated by men, and white ones at that, and, while that didn’t seem entirely surprising or notable at the time, as with many things there is far more to the story and that is what is told here.

Focussing on a trio of African-American women, living in Virginia and working at NASA’s base at Langley in the late 1950s and early 1960s, we meet them on their way to work and heading into a rather dilapidated looking block away from the main, and more modern, buildings where it is clearly obvious that segregation is in full effect.

Hidden Figures - computers
The ‘Colored Computers’ team

‘Colored’ signs firmly in place on bathrooms, drinking fountains and even offices and, beyond that, the view that these women and their colleagues are really only useful for the more menial side of the work, even if it does involve quite impressive (to my mind at least) maths and engineering is instantly and obviously apparent.

It’s likely no surprise that, as the film goes on, it becomes obvious how pivotal this trio are to the success of the US space programme with Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) being the mathematician, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) focussing on computing and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) heading into engineering.

Hidden Figures - Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monae
Spencer, Henson and Monae

While the story is well told and finds a great balance between following Johnson in particular and the three in general through their journey, along with the wider issues of segregation and the civil rights movement that was growing and, in a sense, reaching a peak, around the same time, it’s the performances that really take this to the next level.

Monáe and Spencer are both terrific, with Spencer in particular getting some great scenes of understated conflict with Kirsten Dunst’s supervisor, Mrs Mitchell, focussing on bureaucratic and institutionalised racism while also hinting at the sexism of the time and how the two were compounded.

Henson though is astonishing.

Hidden Figures - Theodore Melfi and Kevin Costner
Melfi and Costner

Throughout she feels entirely believable as a real character both as she encounters the NASA mathematicians to whom she is posted as a ‘computer’ and battles sexism and racism to become a key part of their process and, with the story of her romance with Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), it all finds the reality of the time through the slightly fictionalised and dramatised setting, obviously something essential to it as both a true story and one making the point it is.

The set design is also terrific and really captures the feel of the time excellently from the adding machines and shared rotary phones, to chalk boards covered with (to me) incomprehensible equations and the like while Costner’s office is a mid-century marvel – along with which the contrast between the main buildings and the ‘white’ parts of town and the offices and homes of the ‘black’ characters are notably more basic from the first look.

Hidden Figures - Taraji P. Henson

Along with this the soundtrack is a seemingly under-sung highlight as well with a great selection of music from the time laced throughout the film and doing a great job of showing the contrast between the home life and work life of the characters.

Really though my words can’t do Hidden Figures justice as really it’s a story everyone should know as, even though the protagonists have in recent times been recognised more for their contributions, there’s still sixty years or so of catching up required to make them the household names they should be like the astronauts they allowed to become heroes.

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