ON FILM: ‘Hidden Figures,’ the triumph of black women in male-dominated NASA

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By Saturday, Feb 11 Arts & Entertainment
Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) leading her staff of brilliant mathematicians and engineers to their new jobs at the NASA, at a time when the upper echelons of the space agency were dominated by white men.
Hidden Figures

(See trailer below)

Directed by Theodore Melfi

Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst, Mahershala Ali

2016 has arguably been the best year for films dealing with the African-American experience. Serious features like “Moonlight” and “Fences” have been nominated for Oscars for Best Picture and their performances, “Loving” received one for Best Actress, and documentaries like “I Am Not Your Negro,” “13th,” and” O.J.: Made in America” have also garnered nominations for Best Documentary.

A very different film, “Hidden Figures,” directed by Theodore Melfi — the most commercial and crowd pleasing of all the works dealing with the African-American experience — has also received a nomination for Best Picture.

Our three heroines“Hidden Figures” centers around three unsung African-American heroines; all of them struggling to fully realize themselves at work in a sexist and segregated Virginia. These women — Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) –were exceptional mathematicians and engineers who worked for NASA where they faced discrimination as African-Americans and women.

The film begins in 1961 with their working with other women as human computers (this is before digital computers) doing calculations in a separate “colored” building at the Langley Research Center. But the space race with Russia was at its height, and NASA’s need for gifted mathematicians and scientists meant that despite the obstacles of segregation and racism their color could ultimately be transcended.

The brilliant Katherine is promoted to a job with the Space Task Group (the only black face in the room), whose crew-cut manager Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) is a decent, low-key, work obsessed man who accepts Katherine’s talents. But Al is too distracted to notice the racial indignities Katherine suffers  (e.g., no colored bathroom in the building, forcing her to repeatedly run a half- mile to find one, and the existence of a separate colored coffee pot), or the competitive tension between her and his favorite Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) who is threatened by Katherine’s talent. Though he does try to make amends by ending segregated bathrooms, and rhetorically decreeing: “ At NASA, we all pee the same color!”

If much of the focus of the film is on Katherine, her two friends’ situations are given ample attention as well. The sassy, spirited Mary must navigate racist bureaucratic hurdles to become an engineer at NASA. While the authoritative, calm Dorothy fights for a long overdue promotion to supervisor while taking orders from a patronizing white women, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), who addresses Dorothy by her first name, and is seemingly unaware of her racism –“Y’all should be thankful you have jobs at all.”

The three women may not be civil rights activists, but they are mindful that their breaking the color line in their ascent to new jobs will have an impact on other black employees. Dorothy sees Katherine’s new job as being an “upward movement that is a movement for us all.”

katherine among the white mmen at the Space Task ForceThere is nothing subtle about the film; each one of the women is given a scene where they bravely stand up against the segregation and racism that bound their lives. It reminds me of Norma Rae (1979) an appealing, sentimental film, where an abused, uneducated white woman finds her voice courageously leading a strike. A dissimilar situation, but it stirs the audience in the same way Hidden Figures does.

And when Dorothy is appointed to supervise the new IBM main frame, she brings with her all the other “colored” computers to work with her. The scene is staged, so an audience can cheer, as the women triumphantly walk in unison to their new job. the camera focusing on their striding forward. The film also breathlessly cross cuts from John Glenn’s successful orbit of the Earth to the reaction shots of the people monitoring the flight in the Space Task Group.

Hidden Figures is a conventional upbeat film that doesn’t get close to the psychic lives of our three heroines. The emphasis is on their talents, courage, shrewdness, and their warm friendship. The three women have sweet, sensitive children, and good marriages, with Katherine, who is a widow finding just the right, loving man, Colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), who embraces her strength and independence. They live in a middle class community in Hampton Va. (a university town) that seems too picture perfect–church services, neighborhood barbecues–without an existing underside that could undermine this idyllic milieu.

Obviously, this a not a work of social realism, but a Hollywood homage to three gifted African-American women who fulfilled their potential at a time when racism still ruled, especially in the South. The only thing I can say is that the film moved me despite it being a pure Hollywood product — optimistic, emotionally shallow, and skillfully manipulative. But it succeeds at making one feel good about the triumph of the three women, and, for the moment, the American Dream. That’s no small feat in these dismal times.


“Hidden Figures” is playing at the Triplex Cinema in Great Barrington. Click HERE for showtimes.


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