Main cast: Taraji P Henson (Katherine Goble), Octavia Spencer (Dorothy Vaughan), Janelle Monáe (Mary Jackson), Jim Parsons (Paul Stafford), Glen Powell (John Glenn), Mahershala Ali (Jim Johnson), Kirsten Dunst (Vivian Mitchell), and Kevin Costner (Al Harrison)
Director: Theodore Melfi
Hidden Figures, on paper, seems like an awesome movie to inspire women everywhere who face racism and sexism, to raise above it all for their own happy endings – happy endings that do not hinge heavily on marrying some guy or finding true love. It’s all about girl power.
Katherine Goble is a mathematical prodigy who was the first black woman to graduate from West Virginia University. Mary Jackson is a young woman who has the basic education, interest and knowledge in engineering. Dorothy Vaughan is a mathematician. But because these women are black, and the time is 1961, when Virginia is still practicing Jim Crow laws of segregation, these women could not advance any higher than computing in the West Area Computers in NASA. This is a time before the machines that we know as computers today, so the computers of that time are women who do all the calculations and such needed by the researchers and engineers. The West Area Computers are all black women, and they report to the East Area Computers, who are all white naturally. For Dorothy, she has been a stand-in supervisor since the last one fell ill, but all her requests to be made an official supervisor have been denied. She is not happy with this, as she’s doing a supervisor’s work without the title or the pay of one. She also eventually experiences another dilemma: IBM is sending its powerful machines to NASA, and she knows right away that computers – human computers – would soon become obsolete.
Anyway, this movie is about these three women as they all wade through the morass of racism and sexism in their workplace as well as in their personal lives to become the inspiring women they are today. It’s just too bad that the movie takes wides swathes of creative liberties to exaggerate the racism and sexism to the point that it actually gives detractors enough rope to dismiss it. Also, it can be deflating for people who are so inspired by the movie to look up these women’s history for more information, only to find very easily statements such as the real Katherine Goble saying in an interview:
“I didn’t feel the segregation at NASA, because everybody there was doing research.”
This is a big shame because, for the most part, the movie has enough to drive home the hard-hitting messages. It portrays racism in a deliberately light-hearted and even comedic tone, which only makes these scenes discomfiting, horrifying, and painful to watch. The thing is, many of these scenes never really happened. By the time this movie takes place, NASA has already stopped race-segregated working facilities, and the heartbreaking scene of the movie Katherine having to walk a long distance to use the colored washroom in her old office wing (her new posting has washroom for whites only) can lead to an anticlimactic letdown when viewers realize after a few minutes of online search that this is a moment of fiction. The real Katherine doesn’t give a damn, she just uses the washroom reserved for whites, and I can only wonder whether such a scene would have made a more powerful statement. Likewise, the scene of Al Harrison breaking down toilet sign segregating races from using the same facilities does not exist. Heck, Al Harrison is not a real person, he’s just something the two white scriptwriters (one who also directed the movie) created as the token good white guy in a sea of white racists.
Speaking of made-up characters, it is most unfortunate that the people behind the script opt to create two fictitious racist white characters in Vivian Mitchell and Paul Stafford, who are so cartoon in their antics that it is hard to take them seriously. I always feel that the most terrible thing about racism is how it can be carelessly and thoughtlessly practiced by otherwise decent people who take their race-granted privilege for granted. Portraying that kind of racism would have left a more indelible impact on the audience, compared to having two badly written and badly acted caricatures who may as well wear signs around their neck saying “WHITE PEOPLE ARE RACIST!” It is too easy to dismiss those characters, and hence, the messages of the movie can be undermined as a result.
You may be wondering why I keep talking about important messages about racism and sexism. That’s because, if we take away all that virtue signalling, this movie is actually at the level of a Lifetime or Hallmark TV special. It relies heavily on women’s movie clichés, right down to the three ladies having a party, getting drunk, and dancing in the obligatory “Sisters are doing it for themselves!” scene that apparently every such movie must have. There will be solo demonstrations of black woman’s awesomeness to a disbelieving sea of racist white people, special moments of bonding between these women and the handful of white guys who innately understand that these women have something that white people don’t have, et cetera – the whole movie is just predictable, actually.
What really makes this one worth watching is the excellent cast. Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe are all excellent here, and the chemistry among the three ladies is just so much fun to watch, even when they are saying some of the most banal lines around. Kevin Costner is pretty good too as this gruff and demanding boss who turns out to have a soft spot for Katherine, but his character is basically a walking cliché. As for the rest, the less said about their underwritten, poorly developed roles, the better.
The three women that are the subjects of Hidden Figures have a great story to tell. It’s too bad that the movie opts for blatant historical inaccuracies, trite Hallmark-level tropes and clichés, and some cringe-inducing dialogues to tell that story instead – these elements end up diminishing much of the impact the movie could have otherwise made.