In 1961 African-American mathematician Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) works in the segregated computing division of NASA’s Langley Research Center, along with her colleagues Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer). When the increasingly competitive ‘space race’ forces NASA to ramp up its efforts to put a human into space, Katherine is assigned to work in the prestigious Space Task Group. Facing fierce opposition and institutionalised racism, Katherine undertakes groundbreaking work to progress the American space program.
Hidden Figures is an American drama showcasing the real-life work undertaken by women of colour in NASA’s space program. I am a sucker for films about space exploration, whether they be historically inspired like The Right Stuff (1983) or Apollo 13 (1995), fictional like Gravity (2013) or Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneamise (1987), or pure documentaries like In the Shadow of the Moon (2007). Purely as a fresh addition to this vague genre, Hidden Figures is a tremendous success. On top of that, it is an enormously satisfying film in an entirely separate level.
It is, front and foremost, a biographical picture of Katherine Johnson (née Goble), whose mathematical calculations helped launch Alan Shepard into space, John Glenn into orbit, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon. She is a deeply worthy individual to be celebrated by Hollywood, and writer-director Theodore Melfi (co-writing with Allison Schroeder) has created an enormously entertaining and uplifting film out of her life. This is a classic straight-forward Hollywood drama, filled with strong performances, a warmly constructed screenplay, and a stirring and emotive musical score.
Being a traditional Hollywood narrative of course means that history has, to varying degrees, been re-sculpted to better fit it. Multiple real-life people have been fused into pseudonymous amalgams. Some elements have been exaggerated, other elements quietly put aside. The film selects Katherine Johnson as its protagonist, which does make a certain commercial sense since of the three central women she is the one whose work lies closest to the actually glamorous parts of NASA’s Mercury program – the astronauts and the actual launches. The real life Johnson claimed to have not experienced significant racism in the workplace, and so the film largely invents it for her on-screen counterpart. This does shift the film from fact to fiction, but also allows for a hugely emotive representation of what life was like for many people of colour during the civil rights era.
The film’s three leads are fantastic. There is a spontaneity and a warmth between all three. They feel like close friends. They feel like real people. Taraji P. Henson does a wonderful job of playing Katherine Johnson’s bottled-up frustration, and it is hugely powerful watching her relentlessly push for greater power and more respect. Octavia Spencer plays Vaughan in a much more restrained, laconic fashion, which creates a nice contrast. I had not seen Janelle Monáe prior to this film, and given the experienced cast surrounding her it is particularly impressive to see her draw so much from Mary Jackson. All three are aided by a screenplay that provides them with a huge amount of ammunition: we see these woman at work and home. They are allowed love lives and families. It deeply enriches the film.
To its credit the film mostly takes on an African-American perspective, with the various Caucasian characters pushed into supporting roles. Kirsten Dunst is a remarkable surprise playing Vivian Mitchell, a supervisor whose racism is so deeply ingrained she does not even notice it. Her cool, grounded performance stops her from becoming a caricature. Similarly surprising is Jim Parsons as head engineer Paul Stafford: as the star of popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory he will spend the rest of his life fighting against type-casting. I think he acquitted himself admirably here. Kevin Costner plays… well Costner essentially plays Costner, Hollywood’s go-to guy when a historical film needs a serious but passionate defender of mainstream American values. He played the role in Dances With Wolves, in JFK, in Thirteen Days, and he effectively plays the same part here. That is not a criticism: he is, to be fair, pretty sensational every time.
The film makes one significant misstep. In a powerfully delivered speech by Henson, Katherine finally breaks with frustration and delivers an impassioned rant about the racism – both deliberate and unthinking – to which she has been exposed working in the Space Task Group. It is beautifully performed, nicely written, and powerfully staged. Sadly the film then moves to a scene of Costner (as director Al Harrison) taking a sledgehammer to a ‘coloreds only’ sign above a NASA bathroom. The problem is not the fictional nature of the scene; it is that the film presents a strong scene in which power is delivered to Katherine Johnson, and then immediately steals back that power and gives it to Harrison. For one critical scene Hidden Figures relies on the dreaded ‘white saviour’ figure. Given how well the rest of the film goes, that’s a crushing disappointment.
There are numerous other historical liberties. Some viewers will find them annoying, possibly even troubling. I tend to have a fairly lax attitude to how narrative films adapt history, but in this case I do want to emphasise that I am saying that as a white middle-aged man: this is one of those films where it is well worth digging out reviews and critical pieces by both women and people of colour to get a closer idea of how well or poorly it succeeds.
Personally I think real life is for non-fiction books and screen documentaries: Hidden Figures is a drama produced to entertain. It achieves that task brilliantly, and if the story it tells inspires viewers to track down and learn the real lives and events that inspired it – particularly via Margot Lee Shetterly’s book on which it was based – then it has achieved a second mission as well.