Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Theodore Melfi
Stars: Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, Kirtsen Dunst, Glen Powell, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Kimberly Quinn, Olek Krupa, Ken Strunk, Kurt Krause.
The Help at NASA?
Of all the nine films nominated for Best Film at this year’s Oscars, the inspirational and feel good true life drama Hidden Figures is also the biggest crowd pleaser and the most accessible.
Based on Margot Lee Shatterly’s non-fiction book about a trio of African-American women who worked on the NASA space program in the 1960s Hidden Figures explores how they challenged the segregation and racial attitudes of the time. Not only did the women have to smash through NASA’s glass ceiling but they also had to overcome the colour bar.
America was losing the space race. The Russians had put a man into space and NASA was desperate to fulfil President Kennedy’s vow to put a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth before the decade was out. The pressure was on because the government found it hard to justify spending huge amounts of taxpayer dollars on a space program that didn’t actually put anything into space.
Kathleen Johnson (played by Taraji P Henson, from tv series Person Of Interest, Empire, etc) was a mathematical prodigy. At NASA she was just one of dozens of “computers” – the term used to describe the number of women who toiled away crunching numbers – segregated from the rest of the research team at their Langley headquarters. Until she was assigned to the flight research team. There she was largely underestimated, and given menial work checking the figures of the engineers, until she proved her ability to perform the complex calculations necessary for plotting the trajectory to launch astronaut John Glenn into space and return him safely to earth. She met opposition from head engineer Paul Stafford (The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons) who tried to keep her in her place. He was a little put out and jealous of her when he discovered that he was no longer the smartest person in the room.
But she also faced the casual racism of the staff – she was not allowed to use the communal coffee pot, she was denied permission to attend vital planning sessions, and the only bathroom she was permitted to use was a mile away, forcing her to run across several car parks.
Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer, from The Help, etc) was the supervisor of the “computers” but she was continually denied a promotion despite having acted in the role for over a year. She took it upon herself to study the new electronic computing systems being installed at NASA and trained her staff in their use.
May Jackson (Grammy nominated singer Janelle Monae, who can also be seen in another Oscar nominated film Moonlight) wanted to become an engineer, a position that was denied to her because of her sex and her colour and NASA’s protocols. In a wonderful irony the only way she could earn her degree was by attending a local segregated school, which required her to go to court to challenge the school’s policy.
All three central characters are well drawn and the three actresses are excellent, delivering the goods with convincing and heartfelt performances. Spencer gets the showiest role here and gets to make a couple of eloquent and impassioned speeches, which is why she is the sole member of the cast to get an Oscar nomination.
Not only were the three women instrumental in the success of the Mercury manned space program but they were also responsible for breaking down some of the racial barriers and prejudices within NASA. The film draws a nice contrast between the technical and scientific achievements of the space race with the changing social environment of America at the time and illustrates effectively how segregation was a barrier to progress.
Kevin Costner brings a touch of gravitas and heart to his role as Al Harrison, the supervisor of the Caucasian only male dominated flight research team, who slowly breaks down the racial barriers. AS he puts it: “We all get to the peak together or we don’t get there at all.” This is the kind of decent, earnest character he used to play in the late 80s and early 90s. Parsons plays the arrogant and tightly wound and distrustful engineering genius, a role that his not much of a stretch from his nerdy persona on the hit tv series. Kirsten Dunst is also good as Vivian Marshall, the supervisor of the “computers” who displays an unconscious bias, but she is largely a one-dimensional character.
There is some great production design from Wynn Thomas, who has regularly worked with Spike Lee, especially evident in the impressive sets for the NASA offices. The period detail also reeks of authenticity, as do the small details such as the separate drinking fountains and separate dining rooms, the coloured section in the local library, which give us a feel for the era. The terrific soundtrack is also evocative of the time. Archival footage seen on television screens also gives us some insight into the burgeoning civil rights movement of the era.
The director is Theodore Melfi, who previously gave us the superb St Vincent with Bill Murray and an excellent Melissa McCarthy. While taking some liberties with the source material, Melfi and scriptwriter Allison Schroeder skilfully weave together a number of narrative threads and big themes. They also make the complex maths exciting and accessible.
A footnote tells us the fate of the three women. Katherine went on to calculate the trajectories for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon and for Apollo 13, as well, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2015. In 2016, centre where she worked in Langley was renamed the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility. Dorothy was promoted to supervisor, the first African American female supervisor at NASA, and Mary gained her degree and became an engineer at NASA.
Hidden Figures is a perfect title for the film as it has a wonderful double meaning – not only does it refer to the complex mathematical equations but it also refers to the way that these talented women were denied opportunities by closed minds. It succeeds because of the effectiveness of its storytelling and it does make you feel angry at times. The film delivers a heartfelt plea for tolerance and equality, themes which still resonate strongly today.