The Fantasy of Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures, a film about three African American women whose talent for mathematics allows them to transcend racial segregation at NASA in the early 1960s, is charming in many respects. It’s a pleasure to see a story about Black women, as opposed to the more common films of Black men overcoming prejudice. And it’s a welcome respite from slavery-era parades of horrors. But Hidden Figures, though ostensibly a historical film, paints such a rosy picture of the Jim Crow-era South that it feels like a lie.

The film opens on a young Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), a gifted student whose facility with mathematics allows her to see patterns and figures hidden in everyday life. The possibilities for her education should be limitless, but because she’s African American, her parents will have to take her to a distant school, the only one advanced enough for her that admits Black students.

The rest of the film takes place in 1961, when Katherine and her coworkers, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), work in a computational group for African American women. They’re temporary workers who are commissioned by various departments at NASA to solve equations and check the math of the White men who run the show, even though a newly installed IBM machine threatens to make them obsolete. These women have ambitions far beyond their current status. Dorothy, who already runs the computation group, wants the actual job (and accompanying salary) of a supervisor. Mary wants to be an engineer, something unheard of for a woman of color at the time, but the only schools that have the necessary courses for her degree are still segregated. Katherine is the most talented mathematician among them, and she’s brought in to check the math for the people planning out the newest orbital explorations, let by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner).

It’s hard not to be moved by the inevitable success of the three women, especially with a score that bashes you over the head with its sense of importance, and the very on-the-nose songs by Pharrell. The three leads are always compelling, and Costner radiates gravitas, but their stories seem shallow, and they seem to be living in an era of considerably less menace than the actual 1960s in Virginia.

The three women have a run-in with a police officer early in the film when their car breaks down, and though the characters articulate their fears, the scene is played for comedy. When the police officer arrives, he’s clearly a racist, but he quickly transforms into a simple buffoon who offers the women an escort back into town. Three Black women meeting a police officer on an empty stretch of road in the South during the Civil Rights era is far more serious than director Theodore Melfi and co-writer Allison Schroeder treat it.

There are other obligatory allusions to the dangers facing people of color at that time, like a Civil Rights rally being watched over by police with German Shepherds, but there’s never a sense of danger or menace. The discrimination the women of the computation group experience is treated more like a supremely annoying aggravation than something potentially fatal.

Hidden Figures also misrepresents the historical facts and timelines that govern its story. That’s not necessarily a crime—this isn’t a documentary, after all. But the film’s lack of any stylization gives it the feel of a historical document, and the standard parade of real-life photos before the end credits adds to that manipulative sense of accuracy. In reality, the women’s career goals in the film had been achieved years, even decades, prior to 1961. These kinds of elisions and shifts in time are standard for historical films, but the filmmakers should have found a way to convey that to the audience.

This slurring of facts is necessary to more fully connect the three leads to the better known careers of astronauts like Alan Shepard and John Glenn, but Henson, Spencer, and Monáe could have been just as compelling without all that flash. I couldn’t help but compare the film with Moonlight, another movie lauded for its depictions of African American characters. That film is as beautifully stylized and electrifying as Hidden Figures is flat and dull, and its focus on the inner-life of a contemporary gay Black man was far more intriguing than the accomplishments of three geniuses.

Perhaps if Hidden Figures had scaled down the bombast and not tried to turn Katherine Goble into the hero who saves John Glenn, but instead an incredibly talented woman living under oppressive racist policies, it would have seemed truer to life. The movie is clearly marketed as an inspirational film, but its message seems to be that only those who are unbelievably gifted matter. Moonlight has shown that even the most ordinary people can be absorbing on screen. Compared to that, Hidden Figures just doesn’t seem real.

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