A review of the movie “Hidden Figures” and the story of three remarkable African-American women

In some ways, “Hidden Figures” (2016) is a (belated) companion piece to “THe Right Stuff” (1983). Both tell the story of the herculean effort by the United States – which failed – to beat the Soviet Union to put a man in space.

Whereas “The Right Stuff” focused on the first seven America astronauts who had the so-called ‘right stuff’, “Hidden Figures” concentrates on the huge team of scientists, technologists, mathematicians and managers (mostly white men) ‘hidden’ behind these astronauts and, most especially, highlights the largely unappreciated contribution of African-American women through the experience of three of them: mathematician Katherine G. Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and supervisor Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer).

The only stars in this film are white: Kevin Costner as Al Harrison, a character largely based on Robert C. Gilruth, the head of the Space Task Group at Langley Research Center, and Kirsten Dunst as a character who reflects the views and attitudes of some of the white women who served in managerial roles at that time but was not an actual historical person.

The movie makes clear the everyday discrimination faced by staff of colour in the NASA of the early 1960s, not least the provision of bathrooms for coloureds. In another interpretation of the title, the film underlines how much complicated mathematics is involved in planning a space launch and return.

Like many other great stories of NASA employees, NASA has been sharing this story for years. In fact, the author of the book on which the film is based, Margot Lee Shetterly, has noted the title is “something of a misnomer.” The women at the centre of the story were not so much hidden as unseen. If this film helps to correct that, it has served its cause since it commemorates the achievments of some remarkable women in a worthy work.

However, even though the movie was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, as cinema it is rather pedestrian and by the numbers. For sheer entertainment, “The Right Stuff” is much the better film.

Katherine Johnson biography click here
Mary Jackson biography click here
Dorothy Vaughan biography click here


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