Cast: Taraji P Henson, Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst, Mahershala Ali, Glen Powell
Director: Theodore Melfi
Rating: Three and a half stars
Three Black women made an invaluable contribution to the US space programme in the years when the Cold War was at its height, and the race to be first out there was being held up as a matter of life and death. In fact, if we go by ‘Hidden Figures’, a dramatized bio-pic based on the book of the same name, there wouldn’t have been an American in space so speedily, if it hadn’t been for these three whip-smart ladies – Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan.
It is 1961, and segregation is still firmly in place. Restrooms and coffee percolators are clearly labelled so as not to cause confusion. The telling phrase, ‘go, no go’, which the scientists in the NASA rumpus room keep using, becomes a metaphor for race (and gender) in this movie: you may be the only one in the room to be able to do the math on how to safely bring an astronaut back into the earth’s orbit, but you may not go to the whites – only toilet to relieve yourself.
Gender conventions are also upended. Our trio is as geeky and nerdy as the men, but they are treated as the ones who will clear the trash and offer clerical services, when asked. Misses Johnson, Jackson and Vaughn endure the slights and the insults till they can, and then stand up for their rights. All the while, of course, furiously calculating complicated squiggles on blackboards, and cracking code before computers were invented. As a side-note, there’s mention of ‘real computers’ as opposed to these ‘coloured’ ones, which will do the job much faster. But since when was intelligence redundant?
‘Hidden Figures’ works as a vastly entertaining bust-out on both counts of race and gender while keeping its science in the forefront: it shows Black women with enough smarts, but has them paint their lips vivid reds and crimsons. They are geniuses, but not dowdy.
You can see some sequences are there simply to make a point. To have, for example, Jackson’s husband offer full support in her quest to become the first African-American engineer at NASA. To have another male make a disparaging comment about math and women, but then have him ask for forgiveness. It’s meant to make us smile, and we do. There’s a great money shot, which has a contingent of Black women, march from one building to another: it feels like a shifting of goal-posts, and I cheered, just like everyone else around me.
The performances are all very good, and Henson is a stand-out, channelling dignity and conviction in just the right doses to walk past her odious white senior (Parsons) to the man in charge (Costner).
Did those things really pan out just the way the movie shows us? It doesn’t matter, because ‘Hidden Figures’ does that very important thing: lifts the veil off people and events kept for so long in the dark, in order to make us acknowledge that the world is a hotchpotch of colour and race, and ability has nothing to do with either.
So what if it is done in a crowd-pleasing manner? There are times when that’s the only way to go.