Historical fiction – that genre which presents a film ‘based on true events’ – has been among the most reliable and interesting sources of good movies in recent months. From ‘Loving’ to ‘Sully’ to ‘Jackie’ to ‘Patriots Day’, these films have given us an insight into actual events which transcends the news and the tabloids. And while they might take some liberties with the actual facts of the situations involved, they most often stay true to the core history of the story being portrayed. And when the credits roll, and you get the story behind the story – not to mention the pictures of the real life persons being portrayed by actors in the film – the goosebumps can be palpable.
Such is the case now with ‘Hidden Figures’, a wonderful film which tells the little known story of the extraordinary cadre of black women mathematicians and engineers who played a critical role in the creation of America’s space program in the early 1960s at the cusp of the civil rights movement in segregated Virgina (the same period of time as ‘Loving’).
Led by an exceptional cast including Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner and Jim Parsons, the film explores both civil rights and women’s rights issues, as well as the historical paranoia of the US falling behind the Soviet Union in space exploration. The urgency of this desperate race against time, played out against the institutional racism found even in one of the most highly educated sectors of the government – NASA – provides an exciting juxtaposition of the issues; and propels the film at a faster rate than might be expected. The result is a very fulfilling film on a number of levels.
Henson is the primary focal point among the ensemble of actors, playing Katerine Goble Johnson, a mathematical savant who graduated high school at 14; college at 18 and was one of a small handful of black students to desegregate the graduate school at West Virginia University. Starting work at the forerunner to NASA, she was part of a group of ‘women computers’ – a staff that did the manual calculations needed to support the scientists and mathematicians leading the program. Henson does an excellent job of reconciling the issues facing women – particularly black women – with her obvious technical superiority to many of her male peers. While it becomes a bit too much of a trope, her constant running from the center of operations to the ‘colored women’s’ restroom in another part of the NASA complex becomes an excellent metaphor for the unimaginable hurdles faced by blacks and women in this period – particularly in segregated Virgina, where NASA then operated. Ultimately, when she highlights this absurd situation to her boss played by Kevin Costner, he unilaterally integrates facility. Henson’s quiet dignity, clear intelligence and steely strength are perfect for the role.
But Henson is not the only one with steel in her spine. Octavia Spencer, as the titular but unacknowledged supervisor of the group of black women computers, is the mothering core of the group. As Dorothy Vaughn, she not only leads the group, but foresees the significance of the newly installed computer systems, and teaches herself – and then her team – to program the machine and make that group indispensable. And Janelle Monae, as Mary Jackson, is the sassy one of the group, unwilling to accept segregation as a given. She becomes the first black and female engineer at NASA through sheer force of will.
As a trio, these three are compelling figures who are easy to root for; and whose ultimate success comes as a feel good ending to the story – particularly when it is accompanied by America’s success in putting a man into space and then on the moon. What is not easy to root for, however, is the extent of institutional racism and sexism presented in the film. This was an extraordinary time of scientific progress in our country. But it was also a time of shameful ignorance and suppression of many of the people who made that progress possible. As I remarked coming out of the theater, one would expect the greatest scientists, mathematicians and physicists of our time to be more progressive and tolerant. Clearly, they were not.
‘Hidden Figures’ is an excellent lesson in history, tolerance, the value of education and the growth that we still need to experience in this country. I highly recommend it!
And speaking of breaking barriers, for those of you in the Upper Valley, I want to strongly recommend that you head over the Hopkins Center on Saturday, January 21 at 7.00pm for 'The Eagle Huntress'. This was my favorite film of the Telluride Festival! It is an extraordinary documentary about a young Mongolian girl breaking the barriers of age, sex and tribal tradition to become the first woman of her tribe to learn the traditions of hunting with eagles. Yes, this is a documentary; but it consistently feels like an exciting adventure film and the cinematography is amazing! GO SEE THIS FILM!! You will be very glad you did!.