There are two things that prompt me to write a review immediately after watching a film. Either it’s so terrible/bad I feel impelled to warn others not to waste their money on time or it, or it’s so good that it becomes a duty to share its brilliance.
Thankfully, Hidden Figures is the latter. It is, in my opinion, one of the best films this year – with an actual, inspiring story instead of the insipid garbage Hollywood has been churning out lately (sequels, more superheroes, etc.) Based on a true story, the film highlights the lives of three African-American women working at NASA during the Space Race, and who changed the course of history.
It is 1960s America and and the country is competing with Russia in the Space Race, to send the first human being into orbit. At a time where ‘coloured’ groups are fighting for equal rights to live in an integrated society, where ‘whites’ and ‘coloured’ facilities are segregated, the irony is not lost on the audience.
Enter three friends – mathematician Katherine Goble (Taraji P.Henson), unofficial supervisor Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and aspiring engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) – African American women working at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The women worked as ‘computers’ in a segregated division of the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, where they did calculations (this was before the computers we use today were invented).
Following a successful Russian satellite launch and increasing pressure to send American astronauts into space, Katherine is roped in to help the Space Task Group, under the direction of Al Harrison. She becomes the first ‘coloured’ woman on the team. If anyone has ever felt out of place somewhere, they can surely relate to Katherine’s first entrance into the office – her white, male colleagues staring at her like a freak show as she makes her way to her desk.
Aside from dealing with her hostile new colleagues, who are dismissive and demeaning (especially head engineer Paul Stafford), she is also a victim of the era’s racism – after attempting to pour water for her coffee at the communal water dispenser, the next day, a separate pot emerges labelled ‘coloured’. There are also no coloured bathrooms in the new building, resulting in Katherine having to dash half a mile away to her old office in order to use the loo everyday. When director Al questions her, Katherine explodes (in an Oscar-worthy winning performance!), silencing the entire group as they hang their heads in shame, before she leaves with dignity. Back at her old office, Katherine is surprised when Al shows up with a sledge hammer, demolishing the ‘coloured’ bathroom signs and announcing that all toilets would just be toilets. He also allows her into meetings, despite Stafford’s protests. Her contributions enable the group to create an equation to guide the space capsule they were planning to launch into a safe re-entry point. Thanks to her abilities, her colleagues gradually accept her as a part of the team.
Meanwhile, Mary identifies a flaw in the experimental space capsule’s heat shields. Encouraged by her mentor, she decides to pursue an engineering degree and convinces the judge to grant her permission to attend night classes in an all-white school. She later goes on to become NASA’s first female African-American aeronautical engineer.
Dorothy learns of the impending installation of an IBM electronic computer that could replace her co-workers, so she secretly visits the computer room and starts the machine. She visits a public library, where the librarian scolds her for visiting the whites-only section, to borrow a book about Fortran. Another example of the racism in that era: when Dorothy tries to explain that the book she wanted was not available in the coloured section, the librarian says that ‘it’s just the way it is’. She ends up taking the book anyway (in your face, librarian!) and teaches her co-workers how to run the machine. She is officially promoted to supervise the Programming Department, becoming the first African American woman to be appointed as a supervisor.
An epilogue reveals where the three friends are later in life: Katherine married and went on to calculate the trajectories for Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 missions; and she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. The Computational Research Facility at the Langley Research Center was renamed in her honour in 2016.
After stuff like 50 Shades of Grey or chic flicks where women are either objectified or in constant need of being rescued, Hidden Figures was extremely refreshing and uplifting. The story highlights not just the struggles of being a woman in a male-dominated field/society, but also the challenges faced by the African-American community in a time where racism was rife (and is regressing, looking at world issues today). It is a story of persevering against all odds, of rising above them, and of being brave enough to make changes for the better.
While some events have been dramatized for the big screen and didn’t actually occur to the people the movie is based on, they were good examples of how the African-American community suffered for many years under a segregated, racist regime. The cast delivered superb performances, and I found myself rooting for them and almost clapping at some scenes. Taraji P Hensen’s heartfelt emotions when she yelled at Al practically radiated off the screen: we feel for her, having to put up with people who look down on her, having to work like a dog and spend time away from her family – all these emotions pent up and unleashed after reaching breaking point.
We also cheer for the inspiring successes our characters gain. Mary’s speech to the judge as to why she should be allowed to enrol in an all-white school was something that stuck with me.
“I plan on being an engineer at NASA, but I can’t do that without taking them classes at that all-white high school, and I can’t change the color of my skin. So I have no choice, but to be the first, which I can’t do without you, sir. Your honor, out of all the cases you gon hear today, which one is gon matter hundred years from now? Which one is gon make you the first?”
Other moments: The white supervisor, Mrs Mitchell, who constantly calls Dorothy by her first name, acknowledges her as ‘Mrs Vaughan’ by the end of the film, giving her due respect. Stafford, who at first insists Katherine only ‘type up the report’ and not add her own name to it, finally concedes, seeing as how she has been contributing to the programme.
In short, Hidden Figures is a must watch for its inspiring story, and I think it’s great that they are telling stories that matter, beyond entertainment value. To be honest, I had never known about Katherine and the African-American women at NASA, the first of their kind who paved the way for others to come after. In that sense, the movie title is apt – bringing these hidden figures and their important contributions, to light.