Hidden Figures (2016) tells the story of three African-American women working at NASA who were instrumental in the success of America’s space program in launching a man to orbit and eventually sending a manned mission to Moon. Based on a non-fiction book of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly, the movie is set in 1960s and deals with racism, sexism and the Space Race between the US and Soviet Union.
If you paid attention in school or got a proper education in history, you know that the 1960s America wasn’t the best of time for African-American people. This movie depicts the struggles of African-American (using the word ‘colored’ just sounds wrong to me for multiple reasons) women who, despite their remarkable capabilities, find themselves held back by the conservative constrains of their time.I couldn’t help but ponder that, had the brilliant Katherine Johnson and her female peers at NASA lived in a more progressive time, Lord knows how much more they could’ve achieved.
Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae as the main characters and Kevin Costner and Kirsten Dunst as supporting roles, the movie revolves around the lives and work of NASA mathematicians, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson in the little known chapter in American history. You can read more about these incredible women here.
All the characters’ fight and struggle are significant in this movie but I love Octavia Spencer’s character, Dorothy Vaughan, the most. Just like the rest of the coloured women in the segregated section of NASA called West Computers, she is incredibly intelligent, She takes upon herself to lead the computing team, learn a new computing language and prove her capabilities to earn her the much deserved Supervisor position in a male dominated aerospace agency. Instead of being envious of her colleagues moving up to better positions, she supported them and continue to find her place in the fast-changing field of space program.
When it was obvious that soon computers are going to replace her team of human computers, she self-taught herself the necessary skills to operate the IBM computers and later, trained her team so that they’ll be ready for the transition. She cared about her fellow female colleagues, believed in her capabilities and refused to be made disposible.
My only gripe about this movie is the romance elements of it. I understand that in based-on-true-story movies, the personal life/romance elements is what humanise the characters and makes them relatable. The on-screen romance between Katherine and Johnson works, but I was completely engrossed by their struggle as coloured women and their crucial contribution to NASA’s space program that I feel like the romance elements is something this movie can do without. Come on, these women are pioneers in their area of expertise in NASA. There are very few people who can say that about themselves in this world.
I also feel like this movie has some kind of ‘Hallmark movie’ vibe to it. Upon the first time watching it, I immediately felt like the movie glosses over the very serious underlying themes of racial prejudice and gender discrimination. But now that I’ve seen it twice and really thought about it, I realized that perhaps this movie needs to be made this way. Hidden Figures is family-friendly and a great movie for children and young teens to get them interested in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
One of my favourite things about movies is how it managed to show me insights into the lives or events that I may otherwise will never get to know. If it hadn’t been for movies, I’d never know about how John Forbes Nash Jr., managed to make breakthrough contributions in the field of mathematics despite suffering from schizophrenia in A Beautiful Mind (2001) or Erin Brockovich’s courageous fight against an energy corporation’s unscrupulous industry practice in Erin Brockovich (2000). There are a few other movies of this genre that I really appreciate due because of this aspect alone.
I’m a firm believer that movies have no other obligations other than to tell stories. But if it helps to open up the minds of people to new things and understand things they may not care about, I’d say go ahead and make an incredibly well-made movie while you’re at it. In this sense, I’m glad that Hidden Figures is a great, fun-time-in-the-cinema kind of movie that’ll leave you feeling good and inspired.
We all need a little bit of that every now and then.