There are such moments in the collective memory of mankind that are documented and celebrated decades later for changing the world we all share. In that sense, history is just a plot put together from real world events, game-changing as they were in hindsight, which makes the story of civilizations – the story of us. These moments – or events – wheel the narrative forward and we often choose only to remember what prodded us forward for the better, which is why these moments often look like “firsts”.
“Hidden Figures” is based on the lesser known lives, albeit fictionalized for the big screen a fair bit, of three African-American women who made significant contributions to the efforts that led to putting American astronaut John Glenn into orbit around the Earth in the 1960s – a desperate win for USA in the space race. This is a story of three trailblazers – in heels.
Mary Jackson was the America’s first female African-American Engineer at NASA. Dorothy Vaughan was the first African-American Supervisor at NASA. Katherine Johnson went on to perform calculations for Apollo II mission to the moon and the Space Shuttle.
The movie is set during the technological struggle of the 1960s, and it disenchants viewers about what really fuelled the work that put man in space: competition – a kind of proxy war between USA and USSR and not virtuous curiosity motivated white men trying to conquer space with a set of complex, elegant equations; it would seem that this setup was half of what would make the movie compelling and yet the movie fails to use this backdrop to its advantage. To its credit, the movie doesn’t lose sight of its heroes (or heroines, whatever you prefer): we get a glimpse into the personal homes of the three leads, their reverence for Science, and their resilience through the unique challenges they encounter due to their racial and gender identity.
Paul Stafford: There’s no protocol for women attending.
Katherine Johnson: There’s no protocol for man circling the earth either, sir.
Based on real people, the three lead women are unlike most female characters you’ve seen on screen: a beautiful blend of a warm presence and inconspicuous intelligence, they command respect without so much as even asking for it. Further, the movie is inspirational in the sisterhood it portrays even as they compete for a handful of opportunities in the workplace. Dorothy Vaughan’s character, fearing unemployment as emerging new technology threatens to make human calculation a vestigial skill, envisions the importance of programming knowledge; self-taught herself, she teaches her colleagues as well. Mary Jackson is an undeterred force to reckon with as she challenges segregation to attend night classes in an all-white school. Katherine Johnson is a delightful surprise as she sidesteps discrimination with grace and enters doors previously closed to a doubly marginalized woman such as her.
However, the movie falls prey to cliché despite having the opportunity to tell an unconventional story; the full scale of the ugliness of discrimination faced by Black people isn’t realized and the movie gets away with a weak speech by a white male superior to end separate bathroom arrangements. The reality of creating fiction about Black people in an attempt to rewrite history and to promote representation of Black people in cinema takes front seat; as history casts a dark shadow, empowerment cinema wins big despite its cinematic mediocrity.