Theodore Melfi’s HIDDEN FIGURES
A movie review by Dennis D. McDonald
By now most folks are probably familiar with the early-1960’s story portrayed in this film: three black females are hired by the NASA Langley Research Center to support the engineering and mathematics efforts behind getting an American into orbit. Initially the women and their fellow black female “computers” are tasked with basic number crunching and data reduction. NASA management eventually – and somewhat grudgingly -- realizes they have some real calculating gems on hand.
One of the three women followed in the movie is a math prodigy (Taraji P. Henson), the second dreams of becoming an engineer (Janelle Monáe), and the third sees computer programming as the wave of the future (Octavia Spencer). The first is assigned to an all-male-engineering group, the second has legal Virginia roadblocks that must be overcome, and the third has to fight her way into management.
I'm sure the facts of history have been altered to make these three stories flow. I was, for example, hoping to see more slide rules and mechanical calculators in action, but alas, that was not to be. In addition, some of the technical details of the Mercury spacecraft as illustrated on screen are a bit dodgy. But it was exciting to see a room-filling IBM mainframe computer along with 80-column punch cards and mentions of FORTRAN.
Despite these lapses, we do see an amalgamation of late-1950s/early 1960s culture represented deftly and without a lot of philosophy or yelling: The U.S. vs. Soviet Union “Space Race;” rampant U.S. racism baked into both the culture and the law; and, institutional sexism that appears to have beaten back many of the gains made by women entering the U.S. workforce during World War II.
Thankfully, HIDDEN FIGURES does not heavy-handedly portray these women only as symbols of a “movement.” Instead they are portrayed as intelligent professionals who are swimming against the tides both of their own culture and its arguments for accommodation, and of the cultures of their ancestors’ past enslavement. Despite the historic and sometimes deadly events of the Civil Rights movement swirling around them, we never lose sight of them as individuals with families, hopes, and dreams.
The following are some of the other things I enjoyed seeing in HIDDEN FIGURES:
- Numbers are numbers. If you want to overcome gravity there's no getting around Newton by using guesses instead of facts.
- When you walked into a room full of engineers in the old days you would probably have been met by a sea of ties, white shirts, and white faces.
- Watching the struggle for education portrayed here one can't help but wonder: how many potential geniuses over the years have been stifled because they lacked the means, were female, or not white?
- There was a hell of a lot of trial and error in the early days of the space race. Things changed rapidly as boundaries were constantly being tested. How many errors arose because people didn't have access to the right information because they couldn’t get it soon enough?
- Part of good leadership is seeing beyond the numbers and making sure the team sees beyond the numbers as well, as is stated early on by Kevin Costner’s character.
We know about the eventual success of Glenn’s orbital mission and the moments of fear caused by the heat shield problems. As portrayed in the film these elements of fact-based drama don't significantly advance the underlying story of the three women. They do reinforce awareness that they were there and they played a part in a major historical event. That’s important.
It’s good that this movie recovers and promotes the history and accomplishments of these women. As we leave the theater we are also left with the realization that there was a time not so very long ago here in the United States when there were “colored only" restrooms, “colored only” water fountains, and “colored only” public library book collections. The struggle continues.
Review copyright © 2017 by Dennis D. McDonald. A later version of this review was published by aNewDomain here.