The story of a team of female African-American mathematicians who served a vital role in NASA during the early years of the U.S. space program.
December 25, 2016
Directors: Theodore Melfi
Writers: Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi
Composers: Han Zimmer, Pharrell Williams, Benjamin Wallfisch
Starring: Teraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Genre: Biographical Drama
In a past life, I once studied the sub-genre of historiographical metafiction, specifically, neo-slave narratives written in the 20th century. In laymen’s terms, I studied literature that is “based upon a true story.” My mission was to trace the residual elements of slavery from the 19th century within the 21st. Ostensibly, this included Reconstruction and the subsequent nadir period. The movie featured in this review, Hidden Figures, is set in the midst of the (2nd) Civil Rights Movement. JFK is still alive, and gives his famous We Choose to go to the Moon speech. The Supreme Court of the United States has already ruled on Brown v. Board, but Virginia obstinately resists federal law, maintaining segregation nevertheless. Within this context the film unveils history’s Hidden Figures.
Violence: Violence-free is how this movie chooses to be.
Language: Hidden Figures is set when “d**n” was considered vulgar, so that, along with the Lord’s name being taken in vain (at least once) to be the worst of it.
Drugs/Alcohol: After one character is reprimanded for applying to the engineer corp for allegedly being “underqualified,” she vents about it for days. Another brings out a jar of spirits from the backroom to shut her friend up about work.
Spirituality: Kevin Costner’s character gives a speech to introduce one of member of the film’s focal trio to a large team of white male engineers and punctuates the event with a “Can I get an Amen?” Additionally, there is a scene that takes place at church, demonstrating how this was once a central part of Americana; here, the black church is shown as the nexus for black communities community.
Sexuality: One of the female protagonists says, “That Colonel is like a tall glass of water, and I bet he is like that day and night,” to express a 1960’s style innuendo. She is rebuffed by the most extroverted character with a reminder that it is Sunday, and that her friend should have some shame. She does not, for she makes a sport out of scouting good-looking men.
Positive Themes: Briefly, the film takes the time to showcase an anti-segregation protest, reminding viewers that racial progress did not happen via serendipity, but there was, is, and continues to be, a struggle. The existence of Hidden Figures, then, stands as an example of what the United States of America could achieve if certain demographics were liberated from the shackles of oppression.
Hidden Figures begins in 1928 with ten year-old Katherine Johnson (as an adult, Teraji P. Henson) showcasing extraordinary mathematical virtuosity. However, due to the poor state of schools in West Virginia—as SCOTUS would not overturn the fiction that was “separate but equal” Plessy v. Ferguson until 1954. Thus, eighth grade was the limit for black students’ educations. In response, Johnson’s community would rally around her and her parents to send her to West Virginia State College (where she graduated summa cum laude by age 18).
The film then transitions to the 1960’s, when Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) experiencing car trouble on their way to work. A state trooper approaches from down the road, and the tension sets in, playing on some audience members’ knowledge of historical extralegal jurisprudence when it comes to these interactions. Damsels who are not in distress—Vaughan makes the mechanical adjustments under the hood herself—inform the officer that they work for NASA, and he acknowledges their common enemy: those [darned] Russians! He then escorts them to Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.
From this point forward, the film divides the three characters into their own story arcs while being assigned archetypes seemingly as if the audience needs assistance in distinguishing the difference between them. Mary Jackson, with the exception of her fashion acumen and sass, is the least-featured of the trio. She is assigned to the space capsule team, where engineers are testing the heat shield designed for atmospheric reentry. She immediately detects a design flaw, and the lead engineer suggests that return to school to acquire her credentials:
“Let me ask you: if you were a white male, would you want to be an engineer?” he inquires.
With audaciousness, she replies, “I wouldn’t have. I would already be one.”
As schools were still segregated in 1961, she would have to petition in court to grant her permission to attend the required night courses. Jackson would go on to become NASA’s first black female engineer.
Dorothy Vaughsn supervises the West Area Computing Unit in terms of responsibilities as, but not in title and pay. She bestows upon Johnson and Jackson their assignments while appealing to the staff’s actual supervisor, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) for a position of her own in supervision and is ignored. One day, Vaughan passes by a room housing a an actual computer, an IBM 7090. Intuitively anticipating that these machines are the future, she goes to the library to acquire a book on FORTRAN, and proceeds to teach first, herself and then her West Area peers, computer programming. As the technicians who installed the IBM fumble and bumble, unable to activate it, Vaughsn casually walks into its lab in their absence, and initiates the machine. The technicians are astonished upon their return, and her proactiveness would be eventually rewarded with a promotion, which she accepts only after arranging the transfer of her peers into the IBM lab.
Katherine Johnson receives the most focus in Hidden Figures, having been the first black woman to be assigned to the Space Task Group of engineers as a “computer”; before machines could do the same, humans performed the necessary calculus required to put humanity on land, sea, air, and in this scenario, space. Daily, she is to check the engineers’ work, but because head engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) redacts many of the equations due to their classified nature, Johnson struggles in her role, and is further inconvenienced by the combination of her bladder and (still) segregated bathrooms. She would eventually use her wit to decipher the equations for the film’s focus, Project Mercury much to the chagrin of Stafford, who desires Johnson to be reprimanded for accessing government secrets. However, the director of the Space Task Group, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) dispenses with any suspension by asking Katherine if she is Russian—a question designed to provide comic relief. Of course she answers in the negative, and the staff moves on with more pressing matters.
Hidden Figures is a film seeking to fulfill its titular promises, yet it struggles under the weight of its own dramatization. For example, Costner appears in the opening fifteen minutes of the film after JFK calls NASA to express his discontent concerning the US space program allowing the Russians to beat them into outer space (Sputnik). However, in his five-minute presence, he has more lines than the combined trio of leads. This incongruence in focus remains consistent throughout the film, as Costner’s character dominates in on-screen presence despite being a fictional character created specifically for the film. If Schroeder and Melfi desired to promote the idea that Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson could have accomplished what they did on their own, then there should have been more minor characters like Olek Krupa’s role as Karl Zielinskir, the engineer who convinces Mary to get her engineering degree, or Frank Hoyt Taylor as the judge who allows Mary to take classes at a segregated school for that purpose. The dominance of Costner’s character as he knocks off a “colored only” sign off the wall of a bathroom entrance in Johnson’s defense, or ignores the fact that she does not have the clearance to join a government meeting to discuss John Glenn’s (Glen Powell) orbit around Earth demonstrates a misplaced focus, and undermines these women’s extraordinary accomplishments. Alternatively, Powell’s portrayal of Glenn is a fine example as to how one can play a highly charismatic, key figure while not overwhelming the film with his presence.
Even when Hidden Figures shifts its attention to where it should be, it does so in erratic ways. The snapshots into the personal lives of Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson are pleasant, particularly the former’s, as she is a widow being wooed by Colonel Jim Johnson, played by the currently popular Mahershala Ali. Jackson’s character debates with her husband, Levi, played by Aldis Hodge from UGN’s hit series Underground, on the possibility of a black woman becoming an engineer. Meanwhile, Vaughan on focuses raising her boys in an environment that views them as a threat to the status quo simply because of their skin color.
On the other hand, their archetypes are overdone. Vaughan is the most tolerable, as she has a short temper that one could argue is justified as she is a product of her racially-tense environment. I feel that Jackson’s sassiness runs the risk of being misread by some audiences as the Sapphire stereotype. Johnson’s transformation from meek vexed in a spontaneous response to Costner’s inquiry into her daily whereabouts when she runs across campus to use the colored restroom is supposed to be the film’s turning point, but Henson lays on the melodrama with the thickness. Breaking-point in a person’s psyche notwithstanding, the scene stands a gross mischaracterization, and I wish the film’s director and writing team had been on the same page here.
The editing, however, is on point. The camera often follows a character as they pass by a landmark that will be important later, such as Vaughan taking note of the IBM’s construction. Other times, the camera it shifts to place emphasis on a “colored only” sign, which will be later torn down. A poignant scene showing, but not telling, that separate is not equal includes Johnson struggling to compose herself in a colored bathroom that has no soap to wash her hands with or paper towels to dry off, which is particularly problematic because it is raining outside. Later, after Costner/Harrison orders restrooms to be desegregated, Vaughan and have an exchange that is brilliantly shot as they speak to each other’s reflections in the bathroom mirror without ever turning to each other; it is here where Mitchell acquiesces after Vaughan’s promotion:
“You know I don’t have anything against yall,” Mitchell pleads.
“I know that you probably believe that,” Vaughan retorts, matter-of-factly.
Obligatory soundtrack paragraph: It is outstanding. The best song from the score is “Redstone” by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, which often plays when Katherine Johnson is performing her uncanny calculations. Pharrell William’s “Crystal Clear” is a beautiful love song that makes me think of dancing daisies and sunflowers lining white picket fences in font of prefab houses as I cruse down the road, arm around my wife; and I would want to woo her with “Able.” Some folks who listen to “I See a Victory” might inadvertently find themselves doing a Holy Dance as singer Kim Burrell takes ’em to CHURCH (pronounced “Chur-CHA” for those uninitiated by the black church). Do not ask me what “Crave” is about, but it could easily push people down a dance line. “Surrender” continues soulful feel consistent throughout the album.
Most viewers will not be as attentive or cynical as I have been; my criticisms of Hidden Figures as a quality film aside, this is a movie that is worth a watch for several reasons. First, this is a story that is little-known, as the book by which this film is based upon was released in the same year (2016), and it is always a good thing to enrich one’s knowledge of people who fought for civil rights through non-traditional forms of resistance and persistence. Analogous to Disney’s efforts in transitioning away from princess movies where the protagonist’s world is circumscribed by a male presence in Brave, Frozen, and Moana, Hidden Figures is a tangible illustration of the possibility that women can succeed in STEM fields if given the opportunity. In fact, at the time that I have composed this review, a fellow GUG staff member was geeked that someone was doing a review for Hidden Figures, because they were in the process of sending five freshmen women to a Mathfest panel on the topic of women (of color) in the field of mathematics No Longer Hidden Figures: Women Mathematicians Share Their Path to the Profession. Therefore, even if Hidden Figures as a film narrowly misses the mark of excellence, its impact is undeniable, and is currently in perpetual motion.
Here are a few (corrective) factoids from the book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race:
-Despite the presence of segregated bathrooms, NASA was more progressive than most organizations at the time, as they did indeed hire women and minorities.
-Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson did not ride to NASA together, but they were on site simultaneously. They also did not attend the same church.
-The bathroom fiasco happens to Mary Jackson instead of Katherine Johnson. Jackson would ask a group of white women where colored bathroom is, and they would laugh at her, asking her, rhetorically, “Why would we know where your bathroom is?” It is during these daily struggles that Jackson would rus into the engineer who would vouch for her, and she emotionally vomits on him. This would change the nature of their relationship as she would pursue a degree in engineering.
-There was only one colored table in the lunchroom. The film depicts several.
-Yes, John Glenn was indeed that charismatic.
-Dorthy Vaughan’s temper is not fictional.
-Katherine Johnson never finished graduate school at West. Virgina University because it was against school rules to be married, which she was, secretly.
+ Unknown History!
+ Phenomenal soundtrack
+ Makes STEM look appealing
+ Advocates for strong family values, included blended ones
- Uneven character focus and unnecessary characters