The main talking points this awards season were around the two frontrunners, La La Land and Moonlight. Both deserving of any accolade, the film community allegedly picking one over the other as an indication of how they viewed the current political climate. A Technicolor, old-fashioned fantasy musical is cinema’s escapism, a way of sticking its fingers in its ears and singing “La La”. Or perhaps it would be the sombre Miami projects set drama, tackling social-realism, diversity and featuring a homosexual lead amid an all black cast that would indicate an appetite to tackle current issues. In the end, despite a slight fumble, the Academy did choose the astonishing Moonlight. Lets hope we are in for a run of films that are willing to stand up and represent those who are under threat of being marginalised again.
There was a third choice in Theodore Melfi’s wonderful and glossy Hidden Figures, which follows The Martian in making science and maths cool. It's a true story about three extraordinary African-American women who you have probably never heard of, set in a 1960s United States that you definitely recognise, defined as it was by the Civil Rights struggle and NASA’s space race after President Kennedy set an seemingly impossible dream. While being somewhat indirectly a cutting indictment of racial segregation, it is told with the smooth, consummate skill of a studio system era Hollywood picture. With a memorable contemporary soundtrack produced by Pharrell Williams, alongside a Hans Zimmer score, and warm photography by Mandy Walker (Australia), Hidden Figures is a lively, invigorating crowd-pleaser. It could easily have been over-produced, but it’s pitched perfectly with serious star-power to deliver an inspiring message.
The title works on two levels: Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson are unknown within NASA, despite their contributions being vital to the success of John Glen’s orbital test flight; but the maths behind launching a man into space and bringing him home was unknown too until unlocked by Katherine (Taraji P. Henson). The film is at its best depicting the relationship between the three women.
Henson plays Johnson as a mild-mannered widow who is focussed on her kids and happens to be a maths genius, an ability that gets her noticed in NASA. That’s at odds with her being black and ostracised within the department, regardless, she presses on. Katherine is the heart of the film, with a gentle romance bubbling in the background. Mahershala Ali is her potential suitor and has considerable screen presence. He won an Academy Award for his role in Moonlight in which he coincidentally co-starred with Janelle Monáe. Here, Monáe brings a witty, fearless spark to Mary Jackson. All Jackson wants is a chance to be an engineer, except she has to somehow complete a course at a whites-only college. She won’t accept no for an answer and goes to court to win her right to education.
Both women work in a department led by spirited Dorothy Vaughan. Octavia Spencer is phenomenal in the role, justly acknowledged by both the Academy and Golden Globes . Her Dorothy locks horns with manager Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst, in waspish form) who is just following the rules that continually alienate Dorothy. The women in her department are known as “Computers”, before the term referred to the machines that were already waiting to replace them. A sub-plot of the film features Vaughan taming a monster of an IBM mainframe; just one more opponent. Spencer ’s performance again makes the idea of there being lead and supporting roles a bit silly in this case. You can’t separate these women and the film is an utter joy whenever they have the opportunity to play scenes with one another.
The actual supporting role is provided by Kevin Coster as gruff Al Harrison. He’s a shoo-in for this sort of thing and is excellent. Harrison is responsible for the mission, needs a maths problem fixing and Johnson can fix it, but segregation is making it difficult. Harrison is no champion of Civil Rights, he’s just frustrated that one of his staff can’t do her damn job because she has to use a separate bathroom, a forty-minute round-trip away. In a stand-out scene, he deals with that bathroom in typical Kevin Costner fashion.
It is fantastic entertainment, but Costner’s character has become the focus of criticism that the film is using a white saviour fantasy plot-line. When you realise the truth behind the story, it is obvious the Harrison character is being used as a narrative wrench and the reality is that NASA had their cake and ate it.
Hollywood has a tendency to play around with history to suit a purpose. Not tweaking this true story would, perhaps, have had a more sombre result with intentions just as contrived, but the struggle for Civil Rights in 1960s United States is well-served by cinema elsewhere. The results are often incisive and the world seems to need reminding that freedom isn’t cheap. It was a long, bloody battle and one that easily slips back when self-entitled complacency is allowed to creep back into society. Selma is a brilliant on-the-nose recent example and 12 Years A Slave pulls no punches as it reflects on the brutal history behind racial persecution.
With a lighter, often comedic touch, Hidden Figures is just as effective, in a similar mould to 2011’s The Help. Both films tell their stories in safe, broad strokes, but they’re nevertheless accessible and it’s easy to connect with the characters who are “regular people”. No overt politics, no violence, no lobbying the White House; these are the people Martin Luther King fought so hard for. A battle for rights afforded to everybody else; a right to be recognised and a run at life like other human beings. These women are easy to spot even in modern society. They fight for the opportunity to perform their jobs and be recognised for their achievements.
Adapting certain facts for the purpose of cinematic entertainment is Hollywood MO, it doesn’t necessarily disrespect author Margot Lee Shetterly’s more faithful account. Each cultural medium works together, reintroducing the figures of Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson and making new generations aware of their work and story, should be commended.
For that to succeed, the narrative has to reward the film version of Katherine G. Johnson where NASA failed to. She maintained dignity and commitment throughout her career. It’s a sobering thought that she and her colleagues remained unknown for far longer than the film implies, but that’s not the story Melfi wanted to tell and there are other facets to consider; the allure of conquering space exploration before the Russians and the simple fact that women were not expected to have such ambitions.
This truly affecting film will inspire the young and old for generations. Hidden Figures is an impactful, uplifting and entertaining, if sobering, film - a family favourite for years to come.
Finally these amazing, accomplished figures of history are no longer hidden.
It takes liberties but this is big, bold Hollywood and inspirational stuff.