Film review: Hidden Figures

by James Robins / 24 January, 2017

Hidden Figures.

How three brilliant minds quietly upset Nasa’s segregated status quo.

When JFK, in his memorable 1962 speech, spoke of setting sail in space “because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won”, he insisted that “they must be won and used for the progress of all people”. Yet, as the US packed explosive fuel into a metal tube, strapped John Glenn to the top and launched him at a speed of 11km/second into orbit around the Earth, the ­population watching below was still segregated.

This is the contradiction Hidden Figures seeks to explore: black women could crunch the numbers that made Glenn the first American in space, but were not allowed to use the same toilets as white mathematicians, divided from their fellow scientists by the ­ignominious label of “coloured computers”.

The film follows three of these ­brilliant but curtailed minds – Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) – as they quietly upset Nasa’s unjust status quo. There’s no doubt such brave people deserve greater ­celebration, and the film sets out to do just that in an uplifting, if rather soapy, way. Its chief attribute is the strength of its lead performers, all of them self-assured and defiant, giving their characters verve and panache, ready to leave their ­condescending bosses withered like salted snails.

However, there is some rose-tinting going on. When Kevin Costner comes to his senses and hacks away at the ­“coloured bathroom” sign, declaring “Here at Nasa, we pee the same colour”, you’re tempted to assume from this moment that Jim Crow was abolished in every state of the union. In fact, it was only 18 months after Glenn successfully returned that Martin Luther King led the March on Washington.

The film occasionally but deliberately sneers at the broader Civil Rights movement. In one scene, Mary tells her radical husband to “quit your sloganeering”, and in another, Dorothy shields her children from the sight of a protest, warning them against becoming “part of that trouble”.

Such revisionism was a jarring note. But these flaws are papered over by the ­sweetness and triumph of the film itself, which rightly draws attention to those whose vast achievements went ­unacknowledged for so long. •••½

IN CINEMAS JANUARY 26

This article was first published in the January 28, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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