Movie Review: Hidden Figures.
This Oscar nominated film shares a message that is both timeless and timely.
It’s official: movies about math and science are my catnip. Put Ben Affleck in front of a whiteboard and I’m there. Show me a movie about three powerful African American women sciencing the hell out of manned space flight and I’m in love. Hidden figures is much more than a STEM lovers dream however, as it tackles many hard topics: racism, sexism, segregation and protest. This movie has a fine line to walk, and it does it nearly flawlessly. Excellent acting, tight pacing, and a fun soundtrack allow this movie to be both important and entertaining. Given the state of the world we live in, this is exactly the movie we need.
Hidden Figures (2016)
*Note: I will be referring to the main characters by first name for clarity, as one character goes through three changes of last name during the film. I also will use some terms that are archaic and can be offensive, but only when needed to show context or when directly quoting from the movie*
We are introduced to our primary protagonist, Katherine, at a young age. We learn she is extremely gifted at math, and her skills have lead to an opportunity to attend the finest school available… “to negroes”. It’s 1926, and segregation is in full affect. Sending Katherine to this school is a once in a lifetime chance, but it requires financial sacrifice and relocation for her parents, who recognize their daughter’s brilliance. Once enrolled, she find her peers (who are much older, as Katherine has been promoted to classes several grades above what her age would entitle her to) doubtful of the young prodigy. That is until the first time she is asked to come to the blackboard to solve a difficult equation. She not only gets the correct answer, she teaches her classmates at the same time, displaying a familiarity and intimacy with math that goes beyond mere comprehension.
Fast forward to 1961, where we reconnect with Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) and meet her friends/co workers: Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) and Mary (Janelle Monae). They have broken down on their way to Langley Research Center, where they work in an all female, all African American department of NASA. While in the process of fixing their ride, a police officer comes upon the trio, who instantly recognize the danger they find themselves in.
Mary is defiant, Katherine is obsequious, and Dorothy pragmatic in the face of this white male authority figure. We get our first taste of the reality of life in America for these women, as the officer is immediately threatening and goes just shy of calling them the N word. The women appeal to his patriotism by explaining how they are working to get an American in space, and he is tickled pink to give them an escort so they can get back to “beating those commies”. Here in a nutshell is the thrust of much of this movie: in 1961 African Americans have to be better and smarter, more polite and appeasing; in almost all regards they must be “perfect” to get even a tiny portion of what is their due.
STEMing the Tide.
First let us talk about the easy part: the race to get a man in space before the Russians do. As the movie proper begins, we see a NASA that just had its lunch eaten by the USSR in the form of a dog orbiting the Earth. The heat is on, and NASA Director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) is hell bent for leather. This desperation is the doorway for our protagonists: Katherine is the finest computer (before IBM, computer referred to people who did mathematical computations) at Langley, Mary is a savant in engineering, and Dorothy is a natural born leader as well as a gifted programmer. Watching these women make their own luck through determination, hard work, and genius is dazzling. While Katherine is definitely the lead, all three women get chances to shine, and the process of strapping a man to a missile, firing him into space and expecting him to come back down in un-BBQ’ed form was engaging. In particular, seeing math come alive through Katherine was captivating.
Show Your Work.
This backdrop is also a solid driver of the plot, as the space race gives us a set timeline that keeps the film from meandering or naval gazing. We get vignettes of these women’s lives outside of Langley: we meet Katherine’s daughters and later her suitor (Mahershala Ali as Colonel Jim Johnson); Mary’s husband Levi offers a more militant lens on the civil rights movement, while his doubts about Mary’s career give insight into a mindset that many had at that time: if you stand up, you stand out; lastly Dorothy has an especially moving scene when she is forced out of the whites only library and uses it to teach her sons about truth, dignity, and to never normalize or internalize oppression.
These scenes give us context and help to fully realize Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary as people. That they are kept as small snippets helps the film rather than hurting it, as many times this movie had the chance to turn into a romance movie or a larger paean about the civil rights movement. Choosing to acknowledge the environment while keeping it all in context of one specific event allows the movie to be tense and entertaining in addition to having a message. It’s a fine needle to thread, yet Theodore Melfi (director) and Allison Schroeder (screenwriter) pull it off expertly.
Fighting their Confederates.
Here I use the term Confederate both as an allusion to the southern separatists of the Civil War and as a synonym for coworkers. Both seem apropos in regards to much of the discrimination these women face in their lives.
The first antagonist is Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), the direct manager of the “Colored Computing” department. In Vivian we see many different manifestations of racism, both overt and systemic. Mary applies for a vacant engineer position and is shut down by Vivian. Here she hides her racism behind a “well, rules are rules” excuse… when she was the one who created the new rule that froze her out. She also continues to take advantage of Dorothy, shoving supervisor work onto her while constantly denying her requests to actually be promoted to supervisor. Her response to Dorothy’s demands: “be thankful you colored folk even have jobs”. Not a good look, Viv. Her last dig was her most subtle, yet was probably the most telling about how she felt about working with African Americans. She never addresses Dorothy by her last name, while expecting her to address her formally at all times. While African Americans were no longer slaves, to many, their status (and the respect due them) was still intrinsically subordinate to that of whites.
Second is Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons…you know from that show that doesn’t actually do real science), the lead mathematician behind the rocket program. Katherine’s brilliance diminishes his own, and he constantly tries to assert his dominance, even if it holds the team back. He redacts figures that Katherine will need to do her job, refuses to let her name appear on any report she generates, and even bars her from attending meetings that are vital to her calculations. The most galling aspect is that to Paul, he’s not discriminating against Katherine because of her race (which is bad), but because of her gender(which is just fine). Sheldon, you’re a real dick.
…More than Something.
The supporting elements of the film are fantastic as well. The film has a vibrancy to its color scheme, evoking an America of yesteryear. Think Back to the Future or the Fallout series of games (minus the giant mutant cockroaches). The music goes from upbeat to serious as needed, using vintage tracks by the likes of Ray Charles alongside new creations by Pharrell Williams. One song by Pharrell, “Runnin’” is used to great effect, as it at first “belongs” to Katherine in one scene to show her daily struggle, and is later delegated to a white colleague as she finally starts to gain acceptance.
This full circle approach is also abundant in the cinematography and screenplay. Many images, themes and conversations come back around a second time, and it works very well for levity, for denouement, and for contrast.
“They need to see this. Everyone needs to see this.”
While this quote also sums up my opinion of the merits of this movie, it is also a line uttered by Levi to Mary when she wants to shield her boys from scenes of a lynching related to MLK’s civil rights marches. Which seems just right as a recommendation for this film. Right here, right now, African Americans, women, and those in the sciences are afraid and uncertain of their future in America. This movie is strong reminder that the Good Ol’ Days weren’t all that good for a large swath of America.
My decision to include some of the older, offensive terms used towards African Americans in my review felt necessary, because they were necessary in the film as well. It should feel like a slap in the face, not to African Americans, but to white America, that felt so comfortable for so long using such denigrating terms. The movie doesn’t protect the viewer from this side of America and well it shouldn’t. It highlights the need for inclusion in America, or as Director Harrison put it: “we all get to the top of the mountain, or none of us do”. It shows just how important STEM is in American achievement. Lastly it reminds us how amazing America can be, often in spite of itself.
The only knock I had with the film was that the ending was a little too pat. For a film that did such a great job walking that fine line in its tone and message, the ending was a little too “yay, these women got recognition and America got a man in space: racism solved!”. Everyone had their learning experience and got to be redeemed as “good white people”. This is a film that needed a mainstream audience, but I don’t think its message should have been dulled at the end just to spare the feelings of some of its intended audience.
That being said, I highly recommend this movie. It is a wonderful mix of emotions and sentiments, full of character and style. It’s also entertaining as hell.