Space race triumph

Hidden Figures
Review by ANN BYRNE


IT’S about time – and it’s about space. It’s about gender and it’s about race.

Hidden Figures is based on the true story of three black women working at NASA in the early 1960s – Katherine Johnson (Taraji Henson), a brilliant mathematician/physicist; Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), supervisor of black female mathematicians; and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), mathematician and later NASA’s first black female engineer.

The film takes place at NASA’s Langley Research Centre in Virginia in 1961, during the ‘space race’, prior to the US’s first manned flight. The theme is inequality of both race and gender; segregation exists in this era in this area of America. Schools, workplaces, and facilities (toilets, water fountains) are labelled ‘white only’ or ‘colored’. Racism and sexism are institutionalised, ingrained and casual – many of the characters don’t imagine they’re guilty of prejudice, yet what they say and do tell us otherwise. We also witness incipient rebellion against both types of prejudice.

An early scene: Dorothy and Mary are driving to work, the car breaks down. As Dorothy fixes the car, a white policeman pulls up. Mary makes a smart reply as to why they’ve stopped and he immediately displays a menacing power over them (frightening to watch, and still happening in America). He asks for ID. Seeing their work badges, he remarks, “NASA – I had no idea they hired …” Before he can finish, Dorothy completes the sentence in a more acceptable way than he might have: “They have quite a few – women – working on the space program, sir”. He then gives them a police escort to work, because America must win the space race!

At NASA, their work area, “West Computing Group”, is comprised of black female computers (whites are in another building), whose job is checking the math on engineers’ computations, by hand. People were ‘computers’ before machines were.

Kevin Costner achieves what I feel is his finest-ever performance as Al Harrison, head of the high-pressure Space Task Group. His Al is a genuine, singularly-focused leader with his eyes on the prize so completely that he has no time for the nonsense of ‘protocols’, customs and prejudices.

Katherine begins working in his area (with all white men) after, frustrated with his team’s calculation failures, Al asks ‘computers’ supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) for “a mathematician who looks beyond the numbers – we need math that doesn’t exist yet”. As Dorothy tells Vivian, that’s Katherine.

Al’s lead engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) has ingrained gender and racial prejudices and is threatened by Katherine’s superior math skills. He enjoys white male privilege while being unaware of it. Paul continually thwarts Katherine’s work, for example deleting information she needs, telling her it’s ‘classified’. He resists crediting her in their joint efforts, telling her “computers don’t author papers” (thus relegating the women to non-human status: machines. They count – but they do not ‘count’).

Al learns that Katherine is a maths genius who shares his mindset of “yes we can; if we can’t, we’ll invent a way”. One day he’s frantically searching for her for an urgent calculation. When she walks in, soaking wet from the rain, he demands to know why she disappears several times a day. Fed up, she tells him: because the ‘colored’ bathroom is half-a-mile away. His response had the whole theatre cheering.

Astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) and other astronauts come to meet the NASA staff, who line up, with the black women at one side. Though an official tries to dissuade him, Glenn shakes hands with the black women too, asking about their roles. Katherine responds, “We calculate your trajectories, and launch and landing, sir!” Later, Glenn sees Katherine in action at the blackboard, working her speedy magic with figures. During a pre-launch hold-up when the figures aren’t right, he says “Let’s get the girl to check the numbers.”

Al asks, “The girl? You mean Katherine?” Glenn replies: “Yes, Sir, the smart one. And if she says they’re good, I’m ready to go.”

This movie is better than any summary, write-up or review can make it sound. I laughed, I cried, I cheered. I came out of this movie feeling exhilarated, energised and happy. It’s the best I’ve seen in a long time.

(PS, a side-note: it was intriguing to me, an American, to realise that, either due to one’s generation or to one’s awareness of the US space program, there were likely people in the audience who didn’t know the outcome as we watched John Glenn’s capsule threatening to burn up on re-entry.)

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