Hidden Figures

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“Three Negro women chasing a white police officer down a highway in Hampton, Virginia in 1961. Ladies, that there is a God-ordained miracle!”

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This quote comes early in Hidden Figures as the trio of main characters are provided with a police escort to work. It sets out the film’s MO quite plainly; here is a movie that will look back at a point in history where three black women did surprising things despite living in a place and an age where expectations of them were low and prejudice against them was high. 

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Clearly the situation has improved in the intervening five and a half decades but not so much that this isn’t a story that really needs to be told. It’s not that the remarkable women at the centre of this story, NASA mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan & Mary Jackson, had been written out of history but neither had their contribution been widely recognised. It’s not a stretch to suggest that it is the echoes of culturally accepted racism that has left them as unknowns. 

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Clearly you could argue that none of the scientists, or even very many of the astronauts, involved in getting an American into space are household names either. There certainly aren’t many that could give you the names of all twelve men to have walked on the moon whereas any number of people will happily tell you the names of all the fourteen actors who have played Doctor Who. There are a few NASA stars that people have heard of, men like Jim Lovell and Gene Kranz, but the reason these guys are famous is totally pertinent to this argument. We know about these guys because someone made a movie about them. What the Oscars so white controversy, that rightly shook Hollywood a year ago, highlighted is that stories about black women have been less likely to get made. It is this inequality that has kept them hidden, from screens and as a result from history.

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Now though this film has been made and it totally deserves its place in cinemas and at awards ceremonies, partly because of the people relaying these events and partly because of those at the heart of them. Katherine Johnson, played here by Taraji P. Henson, was a key member of the NASA team who did the math needed to get people into outer space on the Mercury missions. She subsequently worked on the Apollo program and with the Space Shuttles as well. Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer, was a lead programmer who was among the first to work with the new IBM supercomputers and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) was an aerospace engineer, working as such for three decades. All three were among the first women and the first African Americans to hold such key positions. They were brilliant and they were pioneers, breaking down barriers related to both the colour of their skin and their gender.

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Hidden Figures is demonstrably a civil rights picture but unlike films such as Selma and Malcolm X it doesn’t show those on the violent front line of that fight. Instead it shows the lives of ordinary people encountering casual racism in their communities and workplaces. There is a line in the film that says ‘civil rights ain’t always civil’ but here it largely is which is actually one of its selling points. It isn’t often that you see this side of the struggle, the quieter side, and it is important to highlight that it wasn’t just those organising the protest marches or having stones thrown at them on buses that suffered. It was every black citizen who had to live every aspect of their lives at all times being treated as second class. It is interesting that as the women meet different people in their field of work you don’t know who is racist and who is not. This is clearly how it would have been for them. The ignorant are not identifiable by their swastika tattoos or their bleached hoods, they are just ordinary white people and any one of them could be harbouring prejudice. Assumptions were made by everyone about everyone else based on their racial background, how could they not be in this environment, and huge sections of the community were unable to trust one another or rely on basic human respect. I’ve not seen this day to day pressure cooker society so well presented on screen, not even in The Help, and it is portrayed with a gentle power. It’s not heartbreaking just because of the injustice of it all, it is heartbreaking how resigned to it everyone was.

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There is another side to the film though as even though these attitudes were commonplace in the 60s, these women’s working environment was not. Hidden Figures, as its perfect double meaning title suggests, is just as much about the unknown work these women were doing as much as it is about the unheralded women who were doing it. The insight into the work of NASA’s mathematicians is fascinating. The film stands as a great companion piece to Apollo 13 in the same way that The Other Boleyn Girl works as an informal prequel to Elizabeth. There are surprisingly few movies about this part of American history and the things they had to do to get people safely into, and crucially out of, space were incredible and very cinematic. Yet still science films as a whole are heavy on the fiction and light on the fact. Does it not strike anyone else as surprising that we’ve never had a film about the moon landing for example? (La La Land duo Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling are addressing this as we speak with First Man but it’s taken fifty years.) Hidden Figures is a welcome addition to this small sub genre.

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In reality the events depicted in the film didn’t all happen concurrently and there are some composite characters but we’ll forgive them this as it seems everything else is accurate. The performances are all good, not only from the leads but from Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons (trying not to sound like Sheldon even though I think that’s actually his real voice), Kirsten Dunst, Mahershala Ali and Glen Powell having a whale of a time as John Glenn. Hidden Figures is not an overly hard hitting film but it has important things to say about race issues, feminism, ambition, family, the space race and the Cold War and is a fitting tribute to three fantastic women. See it for them.

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Is this one for the kids?

Hidden Figures is a PG so is totally suitable for anyone although the subject matter is unlikely to grip a very young audience.

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The Ripley Factor

Hidden Figures has the Ripley Factor increased by a factor of three.

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