Review: Hidden Figures (2017)

I meant to post this about two weeks ago? Before the Oscars anyway, so you get my review as posted to Redbrick without any amendments, pre-Oscars. My major points still stand either way. It was amazing, and I loved it. And I have read the book as well, but I am mid-essay season (like, I am planning on living off coffee for the next two nights to hit my deadline) and it’s all a bit frantic and a hardly know what day it is anymore so the book review will have to wait a bit longer. It was awesome, like the film.

So, here is my review for Hidden Figures, also posted on the Redbrick website here if you wanted to see what else I write about beyond the confines of WordPress (it’s mostly political).

Hidden Figures (2017) Film

Nominated for a huge number of awards across various ceremonies, including two Golden Globes (Best Score; Best Supporting Actress), and three Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress for Octavia Spencer and Best Picture, and here I am surprised they haven’t been nominated for more.

Hidden Figures is the story of three African-American “computers” working at NASA in the early 1960’s space race, trying to put a man in space, and get him down safely again.  Directed by Theodore Melfi, Hidden Figures was adapted from the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. The film plot focuses on three mathematicians of the computing department: Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) who calculated flight trajectories for the Mercury mission and later the Apollo missions to the moon; Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) acting as supervisor without the recognition, and later lead programmer of the computer as we recognise the term; and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) first African-American engineer.

In segregated Virginia, these three women work full-time at the space programme, surrounded by white men who constantly underestimate them as a result of their gender and their colour. Mary is reassigned to the engineering department and encouraged by her supervisor there to apply for the engineering programme NASA offers. Her story is having to go before a court to get permission to attend an all-white school to get the necessary extra qualifications to attend the programme. Dorothy is a supervisor, but has neither the job title, nor the pay to reflect the work she has to do. When she hears that NASA are installing a machine that will render her pool of “computers” redundant, she takes the initiative to make the entire room of girls indispensable, trying to change the system from the inside. Katherine is sent to the Space Task Force for her skill with analytical geometry, facing blockades and resistance at every turn, especially from lead engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons – Sheldon Cooper is a NASA guy). The room full of white men insist she have a separate kettle, and go on a 40 minute round trip to use the coloured bathrooms on the opposite side of the compound.

Over the course of the movie, these three women show their aptitude again, and again, and again, until they achieve the recognition for their work. They cross overwhelming divides based on their gender, and their colour. The three main actresses, and the entire supporting cast, were phenomenal, presenting engaging and entirely believable characters on-screen. And the film shows their life outside of NASA as well, their friendship and relationships with their children and families, how Katherine Goble became Katherine Johnson. Each of the three women have different ways of approaching the limitations imposed on them by society.

It should be reminded that this film is a dramatization of the events as they took place, with one character, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), an amalgamation of three separate people. But despite the tweaks to make this piece of history work as a film, it is a stunning and enlightening film, working to educate and entertain in equal measures. I mean, I don’t know if this actually happened, but there was a very satisfying moment in the film where Harrison literally beats the “coloured ladies toilets” sign from the wall with a crowbar, before announcing that at NASA “we are all one colour”. I really hope that actually happened.

This film reminded me that history is written by the white man – and that history is more than we are taught in schools. There is a glaring gap in our histories, where women, and especially black women, are not credited for the work they contributed to science and advancement. And films like this, based on a true story, will hopefully start earning these women and others like them the recognition they deserve.

Verdict: Hidden Figures is a hidden gem of a true story, opening a window to the Space Race we have never seen before. It is an entertaining and educating film, highlighting the amount of unrecognised work that went into the Space Race, and inviting people to look at history afresh.

I absolutely adored this movie, and all the characters and all three are now in my Women of History folder. I mean, I can barely multiply without a calculator and Katherine Johnson calculated the trajectory into bloody space. Just… wow.

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