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Film Review: Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures (2016; Directed by Theodore Melfi)

A surprise hit historical/inspirational drama and multiple Oscar nominee, Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures engages racial and gender discrimination in ways at once fresh and contrived, subtle and predictable. It’s generally a broad crowd-pleaser in the old-fashioned Hollywood tradition, with heavy-handed themes of hard-won progressive social justice amplified by largely invented incidences of prejudice dialed up to frequencies that can hardly be believed. Still, it’s redeemed in no small measure by the effusive charm of its trio of female leads, as well as its (largely fictionalized, but still pertinent) illustration of the sometimes less-than-heroic everyday mechanisms of social change.

Hidden Figures focuses on (and partly mythologizes) the stories of three African-American women who played important roles in the American space program in the 1960s, based out of a NASA research facility in southern Virginia. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer, Oscar-nominated for her supporting role) supervised a computing team at NASA and became one of the first supervisors (female, African-American, or otherwise) of the workers running calculations on the agency’s pioneering IBM supercomputer. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) was NASA’s first black female engineer, who also broke through the segregation line at a Hampton, Virginia high school in order to take the classes and obtain the necessary degree for the position. Most importantly, Katherine Johnson (née Goble) (Taraji P. Henson) was a key mathematician on the Project Mercury program that eventually made astronaut John Glenn (aged down here and played by Glen Powell) the first American in space in 1962.

Although these three women worked in different divisions at NASA and may not have even crossed paths, Hidden Figures (its screenplay is by Melfi and Allison Schroeder) makes them friends and car pool mates who rise out of the all-black-female computing unit. Their individual charisma is combined and amplified in their intermittent scenes together: bantering about work in the car, noticing attractive men (namely Katherine’s future husband Major Jim Johnson, played by Mahershala Ali) at church picnics, and drinking and dancing together in off hours. Henson is superb at invoking Katherine’s reticence in professional interactions as a combination of intellectual concentration and the limiting pressures of workplace segregation, while Spencer is by now an old hand at polite but firm resistance to quotidian injustices (she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Help, which this film resembles in numerous respects). Monáe is the real revelation, though, a sprite of energy and poise that the film uses far too sparingly.

Although it seems strange to say this about the forever-glossed-over conditions of race in America, Hidden Figures in truth depicts segregation of African-Americans and discrimination of women as worse than it really was, at least in the very specific case of NASA. Spencer’s Dorothy struggles to impress her reluctant white overseer Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) with how much she deserves to be promoted to supervisor, when the real Dorothy Vaughan was made a supervisor in 1949, before the agency was even called NASA. Mary is shown presenting an eloquent and impassioned petition in court to a state judge to be allowed to attend classes at segregated Hampton High School; the real Mary Jackson asked for and received an exemption from the city, no court order required.

Katherine’s struggles in the Space Task Group, where she is assigned due to her skills in analytic geometry, are more involved and even more elaborated-upon. In a room full of white men crunching numbers to calculate atmospheric exit and re-entry speeds for the sub-orbital and fully orbital spacecraft, her abilities are doubted, her accomplishments diminished, her problems linked to her difference simultaneously disavowed and exacerbated. There is no real villain in Hidden Figures (besides the unseen, distant Soviets, always the ultimate motivating Cold War bogeymen), but the closest the movie comes is the STG’s head engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory), who becomes the personification of the smugly superior patriarchal bigotry that cossets Katherine: he bids her to re-check his math despite classified redactions making it technically imposssible, chastises her for listing herself as co-author on reports she mostly calculated and prepared herself, and maximizes the inefficiency of her work by refusing the allow her to break protocol and enter top-level meetings on the latest mission preparations. These obstacles he erects are not openly motivated by racism or sexism, and especially in the latter case, Stafford’s reticence creates inefficiencies under tight, high-pressure deadlines that it seems any professional engineer would realize were only getting in the way and ought to be swiftly swept aside. Still, casting Parsons as such a character demonstrates that Melfi has a keen sense of how expertly odious and irritating he can be as a performer, to which anyone who has watched even a few minutes of his sitcom can attest.

The main showcase episode of Katherine’s travails against racial and gender norms of segregation involves a seemingly mundane workplace reality elevated to civil rights grandeur by Melfi: bathroom breaks. With no coloured women’s washroom in the STG’s building, Katherine must rush off to her old West Computing stomping grounds across the Langley base, taking half an hour or more out of her daily time-crunch workday at a time. When confronted about this by her boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner in Southern-accented, sugar-and-spice, all-American decency and dedication mode) in front of the entire group, the pent-up frustration explodes – understandably but, given the segregation-era expectations of African-American conduct in the society, perhaps unrealistically – and her male coworkers’ dismissive treatment of her is openly called out. Harrison responds by taking a crowbar to the “Coloured Women Only” sign outside the bathroom in question, thus unceremoniously desegregating the NASA base in the process.

Let’s leave aside that this entire episode is invented (Mary Jackson did use a distant coloured washroom at the facility, while Katherine Goble simply employed an unlabelled washroom intended only for whites, ignoring the only complaint that she received), or that it casts Costner’s Harrison (a composite character of various STG administrators) in a benevolent white saviour role (it’s also his intervention that gets Goble admitted to the Pentagon meetings, where she wows the assembled men with her math wizardry; Melfi continues the Hollywood tradition of treating advanced mathematics like pure magic). It gets to the core point about civil rights and racial discrimination being made in Hidden Figures, and it’s a point that ought not to be discarded too lightly.

What is this point? Namely, that the structures and practices of official and unofficial racial discrimination are just as susceptible to the pragmatic concerns of productivity culture and individual interpersonal relations as they are to organized, public political action. Goble/Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson are presented as pioneers, but not street-marching revolutionary agitators: Jackson’s husband (Aldis Hodge) is more socially conscious and radical in his dedication to civil rights but comes to respect his partner’s specific skirmish for her rights, while Vaughan is shown ushering her children away from a civil rights demonstration, telling them that it has nothing to do with them. Of course, it does has everything to do with them and their lives, but Hidden Figures argues that driven, intelligent black female math geniuses gaining respect and accomplishing wonders in the space race has plenty to do with them and their lives, too.

Hidden Figures takes this somewhat-milquetoast and more than a bit complacent point, which values orderly, labour-based boundary-pushing over open demands for equality and justice, and endows it with the magnificent justification of space-conquest myth. Granting African-American women a starring role in sending an American into space – and, eventually, to the moon, that symbolic pinnacle of scientific exploration of last century, if ultimately one whose benefits are more emotional than strictly practical – likewise grants them a key participatory role in America’s self-aggrandizing mythos, which more than any other factor of American life (voting very much included) essentially entails immutable citizenship.

This full and equal citizenship is what segregation (and the more disavowable but no less constraining set of social and political conditions that replaced it) denied to African-Americans, just as sexist practices and laws denied (and still deny) to American women. Hidden Figures has undeniable weaknesses, relying too heavily on feel-good tropes and scrubbed-up boomer-vintage conceptions of the civil rights movement as a group of determined but entirely well-mannered and polite black activists patiently awaiting enlightened white uplift. But if one had to choose a single solidly-built element of the film with which to anchor an argument for its importance (besides the fact that it allowed this photo to come into being, of course), it would be that Hidden Figures makes a firm symbolic and emotional case for the centrality of African-Americans in a strain of the American myth to which they have previously been denied open access. Accepting such access makes America a stronger and better place. If a mere movie, however contrived it might sometimes be, contributes even in a small way to that process, then we should be glad to have it.

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Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews
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