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| 16 February 2017 | Reply

Directed by Theodore Melfi
Starring Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali
Reviewed by Shane Pinnegar

Here in 2017 a film about racial and sexual discrimination in 1961 SHOULD be an illuminating glimpse into a less enlightened time. Sadly, instead, it is ringing all too many warning bells in these troubled times where more and more bigots would see new kinds of segregation introduced.

The film opens in the early days of the space race, where America and Russia vie to be the first to send a man towards the stars. A pool of coloured, female ‘computers’ – people who can compute complex mathematics manually – working at West Virginia’s NASA complex face double edged bigotry every day, being looked down on, paid less, and respected almost not at all.

Three of their number – Katherine Goble (later Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) – rise above the bigotry of their co-workers and community, not to mention the advent of electronic computers, to play important roles in putting John Glen into space.

All three leads are wonderful in their roles, portraying with complex subtlety the conflict of being proud, intelligent women held down by hate and fear (Spencer has been nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award), and get the meat of the movie here. Kevin Costner is dependable as NASA chief Al Harrison; Jim Parsons as awkward as ever as scientist Paul Stafford; Kirsten Dunst is wasted as NASA Personnel Manager Vivian Mitchell; and the rest of the cast are most often set dressing, right down to the leads families, even Goble’s love interest Colonel Jim Johnson, played by the versatile Mahershala Ali.

Hidden Figures does an excellent job of evoking the bigotry of the times, and the growing civil rights movement to overthrow it. It’s also a story of friendship, respect and to a lesser degree, a love story.

Whilst Hidden Figures is a true story, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, it isn’t completely accurate. John Glen did, for example, insist that Katherine Johnson manually check their computer’s figures, but apparently it happened weeks, rather than minutes, before his launch. It has also been reported that the issue with having to use segregated bathrooms was experienced by Mary Jackson, rather than Katherine Goble, as depicted in the film, and the coldness with which most of the other NASA staff treated the women was exaggerated in the movie. Such elements are usually included in Hollywood films for dramatic purposes, but we must be concerned how they might change viewer’s perceptions of the reality of history.

Regardless of such quibbles, Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson all had long careers with NASA, and were integral in many facets of the space program, not to mention in leading small but important wins in the civil rights movement, and Hidden Figures pays due respect to them and their achievements, as well as being a thoroughly enjoyable film with strong values.

Hidden Figures should be compulsory viewing in schools around the world: Here we are heading again, and only you can stop it happening this time.

Category: Movie & Theatre Reviews

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