Thursday, June 1, 2017

Hidden Figures

     In 1961, it wasn't just a man's world, but a white man's world according to Hidden Figures. In this world of inequality, three talented African-American women Katherine Goble, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson are the unsung heroes at NASA during the space race against the Russians. Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary are all in positions well below their skill levels, but "that's just the way it is." Even other black men make somewhat disparaging remarks about women doing the kinds of things these women do. Racism and sexism alike keep Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary minding their p's and q's. But as the space race intensifies, NASA's best minds will have to step forward, and some of those best minds may just be African American women.

      In the 1960’s, segregation is still very much a part of everyday life, with restrooms, libraries, and water fountains enforcing continued inequality and separation by Virginia state law. Back-handed comments here and there reveal barely-restrained prejudices still simmering beneath the surface, even if outright racism is restrained. Hidden Figures shows NASA as a place where there is an even mix of deliberate discrimination and indifferent obliviousness. While some employees are visibly annoyed by Katherine's presence in the Flight Research Division, others are simply oblivious to the challenges that social conventions have imposed -- such as her needing to use a restroom in another building because the restrooms are segregated.

      The cast of Hidden Figures earned a Screen Actors Guild (SAG) award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. This award was well-earned by every actor in Hidden Figures, especially from the leading ladies. The always delightful Octavia Spencer (Oscar winner of Best Actress in a Supporting Role for The Help) continues to shine, perfectly depicting subdued workplace professionalism one moment, and sterling strength the next. Newcomer Janelle Monae's electric charisma and shameless sass constantly lighten the moment while crafting a well-rounded character with conviction and purpose. Taraji P. Henson's Katherine initially seems relegated to frumpy working widow or dull genius, but Henson's portrayal of quiet determination, sweet romance, and tender motherhood make Katherine feel real and connectable, even if she is a genius.




     Of the supporting characters, one of the stand-outs is astronaut John Glenn, whose recent death makes the characterization here a timely homage. Glenn is shown as a fun and friendly gentleman with no illusions of self-importance, going out of his way to meet everyone, and kindly highlighting their importance to his mission. He almost seems too good to be true. But according to Bill Barry, NASA's chief historian, "Everybody thinks of John Glenn as this iconic war hero... and astronaut, but what's missed a lot is his humanity. Glenn was in a classic sense, a gentleman. He was always concerned about the people around him and it didn't matter what package they were in. He was a real people person" (Popular Mechanics, 2017).

      Amidst the excellent acting and inspiring story, Hidden Figures does have a few flaws. At times it seems that the writers were trying too hard to write quotable inspirational lines, but by doing so, it cheapens otherwise strong moments with forced or heavy-handed dialogue. For example, when Al Harrison hacks down the colored restroom sign, following it up with the line "Here at NASA, we all pee the same color" is hardly inspiring, and seems to be an exceptionally weak attempt at summarizing a message of equality. Beyond that, it undermines Al's intelligence as a character. Elsewhere, Mary Jackson walks into her engineering class where the instructor argues that the curriculum is not designed for teaching a woman, to which Mary earnestly replies "Well I imagine it's the same as teaching a man."

      In fairness, it is Hollywood's prerogative to embellish and dramatize, sometimes unrealistically, sometimes necessarily in order to make the story accessible to the broader audience. Bill Barry rightly remarked, "To be able to tell a story in a way that the audience can understand and make it entertaining enough for them to be able to watch, I think the scriptwriters have to be creative and find a balance between telling the exact historic details and delivering a story that is both interesting and gets the message across" (Space.com, 2016).

      One of the ways that Hidden Figures finds the balance between historical accuracy and telling an interesting story, is by using composite characters like Paul Stafford or Vivian Mitchell (played by Jim Parson and Kirsten Dunst, respectively) to represent attitudes of the world outside NASA. Vivian represents the unconscious prejudice of the time, while Paul personifies lingering racist and sexist attitudes. Interestingly, the real Katherine Johnson has said "I didn't feel the segregation at NASA, because everybody there was doing research. You had a mission and you worked on it, and it was important to you to do your job. I didn't feel any segregation. I knew it was there, but I didn't feel it" (History vs Hollywood, 2017). Yet somehow it would feel strange to show African American women in a 1961 Virginia not facing some form of thinly veiled prejudice, so it's understandable why the filmmakers made that choice.

      Hidden Figures is an inspiring story, made more so by the historical inspiration behind it. As a historical representation, it has a few missteps, but not so many that it becomes counter-historical. As entertainment, Hidden Figures absolutely soars, telling a moving story through its strong performances, and drawing attention to truly unsung heroes of space pioneering. Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary were all real women with remarkable talents, each one contributing to the country's space efforts in their own ways. As an audience member, you feel the triumphs both great and small, from Katherine's sweet romance with Colonel Johnson, to Dorothy marching her group of "West Computers" down the hall to take over the running of the IBM. Ultimately, this classic story of overcoming adversity and being part of something greater than oneself is well worth watching.