Monday 27 February 2017

Film: 'Hidden Figures'

When I first saw the trailer for this some weeks ago my reaction was "Aw, come off it! Really?" It then seemed so improbable that I thought it must be one of those made-up, feel-good stories fabricated to please a gullible audience. So I could only hang my head in shame when I found out that the basis of the story was indeed factual and that my own prejudices had made me reluctant to believe it. Having said that, I wonder if there are, even today, forces still at play to keep a lid on the events, for whatever reason. But there's no doubt in my mind that despite being so long after the time, it's yet something that needs to be recognised and celebrated.

It's 1961 and America is pulling out all the stops to be the first to get a man into space, and racing the USSR in particular. Three African-American women  - Kathleen Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson (played respectively by Tanaji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae - the latter looking very like Whitney Houston at times) with demonstrably superior intelligence, join NASA where they find their mental abilities are worse than doubted. It's assumed that because of their colour they are fit only for menial duties, certainly nothing that would put to use their formidable intellectual capacity in mathematics and astro-physics. Virtually all of the male-dominated staff are suspicious and even their female supervisor (Kirsten Dunst) makes hopelessly inadequate and baseless judgments on their mental prowess.  Only boss Kevin Costner doesn't see their colour, though he does display an initial degree of scepticism towards a woman's role in this heavily macho field. However, when he's brought to realise how the colour segregation still operates in Florida he wastes little time in demolishing what of it he can as it only gets in the way of NASA's more important aims of getting that first man into space.
Also in the cast is the recently-awarded for his commendable role in 'Moonlight', Mahershala Ali.

By and large I fund this quite an interesting film though I did keep getting a nagging feeling that the situations were being hyped up beyond the reality of what actually happened in order to make it entertaining. The frequent, startling displays of prejudice by the white staff is intermixed with occasional humour which usually worked, but for me this created a scenario whose message was "It'll turn out alright in the end" (from a twenty-first century persepective), and so inadvertently playing down the struggles of the central female trio against colour prejudice, almost as if trying to avoid confronting the racism issue full-frontal while the anti-female strand is shown in stronger light. 

At the end of this Theodore Melfi directed and co-scripted film, we learn that all three of the central characters portrayed are actually still alive and have been recognised in scientific circles, even if decades later their achievements are still barely acknowledged at all by the public. The oldest of them has now turned 97!

It's surely an important story that needs to be told and widely circulated. I'm just not as certain that this film, apart from giving it much-needed publicity, does it any favours more than that.............6.5.


  1. I loved this one, just because I'd never heard the story before.

    1. I do wonder why it is that practically no one knows about this story, Bob, and I can only suspect that for some influential persons it's a bit of an embarrassment either because of the reminders of past injustices or, more worryingly, because they'd rather cling to the idea that no one can be more clever than white men - and certainly not non-white women most of all!

      It was my suspicion that much of the situations in the film were contrived or over-egged to make better cinema that put a dampner against my enjoying it more. I can't point to any particular matters to illustrate my point because, of course, I don't know. It could be that in fact all shown was the way it actually happened, but I doubt it. However, I'm convinced that it's a story that needs to get out there, so all power to those who, after so long a delay, had the guts to show it.

    2. Your first sentence says it all; I think it's exactly that. I mean, how could a woman, much less a black women, do what a man could not?

    3. It reveals how far we still have yet to go, Bob - and as someone who was a teenager at the time of the first space missions, I still feel shamefaced at how slow I was to believe such a story could be real. As the song in South Pacific perceptively puts it "You've got to be taught to hate and fear....." - and some of us, far too many, take such notions on board without challenge.