Film review by Jason Day of Hidden Figures about the hitherto unknown contribution made to the US space programme in the 1960’s by black, female mathematicians.
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1920’s America: Little Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) is a child mathematical genius whose world is inhabited by numbers. But, being black and living in the segregated south, her chances of using her brains in a career are limited. Despite this, her parents battle to get her the education they think suits her. As a grown up, she works alongside a number of other talented black women at NASA during the early days of the space programme. But the space administration is a microcosm of the prejudiced world outside. Along with her colleagues computer-minded Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) and putative engineer Mary (Janelle Monae) they push the boundaries to see that their talents are recognised and help America in its battle with the USSR to win the space race.
Review, by Jason Day
Casting my mind back to my Psychology ‘A’ level days, research into the nature and reduction of prejudices and stereotyping formed a considerable bulk of the curriculum.
The research is voluminous but the general up-shot showed that contact between different groups, on the whole, helps to reduce prejudice.
Well, no sh*t Sherlock!
Those researchers would have loved Hidden Figures. It shows that segregating of black and white people was not only unproductive but detrimental to the progression of the US space programme in the 1960’s and actively endangered the lives of early cosmonauts.
The film is set during a time in history when it was not uncommon to see ‘Coloured Toilet’ signs in public places and the vile but socially acceptable behaviour that followed them. At NASA, there were only ‘White Toilets’ in the space development area of the building where Katherine is seconded, leaving her with a 40 minute round trip to relieve herself in the nearest ‘Coloured Toilet’.
As her work suffers and she is needed on nationally important work of the highest priority, her senior officer (Kevin Costner) smashes and removes the ‘White Toilet’ signs declaring: “Here at NASA, we all pee the same colour.”
Granted, he is a workaholic driven to succeed and pushing those around him to the limits of human endurance, but that does not detract from the elation the audience feels at this moment. Necessity is the mother of intervention.
Hidden Figures continues the impeccably costumed and fragrantly photographed treatment of racism seen in the similar The Help (2011) and The Butler (also 2011). These ‘candy-coated’ films none the less pack a punch in their own genteel way.
Hidden Figures has the most succinct anti-racist message of these films and does not rely on comic-book villains like The Help or lapse into the callowness of The Butler that, apart from a white hot performance from Oprah Winfrey, is as soft and servile as the title character.
Katherine is an interesting character, someone who sees numbers everywhere; her world is shaped and guided by mathematics. Her role at NASA is earned not by luck or circumstance, but is more of a divine calling. She is presented as a mythical, all-knowing algebraic priestess, atop her pedestal/blackboard ladder like a modern day Hypatia.
Playing her, Henson leads a trio of sassy and strident performances. Spencer (who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her wonderful, straight talking turn in The Help) as the computer brains of the trio, can play this kind of woman with her eyes and ears closed and her talent tied behind her back.
Bolshy is the wrong word though, for Dorothy is unfailingly polite and has spent her career playing by the rules of white privilege, accepting that she is referred to by her Christian name, working hard for a promotion that her white peer Kirsten Dunst cooly blocks. Progression may as well be a bike ride to the moon and back.
Monae (who recently appeared with co-star Mahershala Ali in Moonlight, out on general release now) rounds off the impressive cast as the bolshier and more outspoken of the women, a whizz at engineering who, like her peers, has to battle hard to break through a double strength glass ceiling. Monae, most famous as an R&B artist, is becoming something of an acting find. Here, with bags of sass, style, a quick tongue, and a proud, strident air, she is just a step ahead of her co-stars.
Costner, with an ever present stick of chewing gum, twinkles in support as the only reasonable white man at NASA space development.
The reason why I liked Hidden Figures so much is that, despite the racism and misogyny the lead characters overcome, the film has a strong focus on their professional achievements. Their abilities are not lost amidst the ‘sexier’ cinematic issues.
Even though race relations have come a long way in the intervening half century, just a quick look at the news tells us that there is still a lot more for us to do. Films like Hidden Figures can certainly help, by shining a light into these hitherto unknown corners of history.
Cast & credits
Director: Theodore Melfi. 127mins. Levantine Films/Chernin Entertainment/Fox 2000. (PG)
Producers: Peter Chernin, Donna Gigliotti, Theodore Melfi, Jenno Topping, Pharrell Williams.
Writers: Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi.
Camera: Mandy Walker,
Music: Benjamin Wallfisch, Pharrell Williams, Hans Zimmer.
Sets: Wynn Thomas.
Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell, Kimberly Quinn, Olek Krupa.