Tales of unsung heroes generally follow a well-worn path, particularly when they’re about a pivotal event in history with which most people would assume they are comprehensively familiar.
Such as the Space Race between Cold War rivals the USSR and the USA which saw the two superpowers engaged in a cheek-by-jowl race to get their citizens into orbit and then to the moon first, a period in history about much has been written and many movies and TV shows made.
But like every great moment in humanity’s steadfast climb from the primordial ooze, there was far more going on than just gallant astronauts, cutting-edge technology and daring gambits, and it’s to the people in the background, often the ones crunching the numbers upon which the whole endeavour to get space-borne rested, that Hidden Figures, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly and directed by Theodore Melfi, turns its beautifully-wrought attention.
Granted, its telling of this tale, which focuses on three brilliant black women who were among a dedicated team of NASA computors – interestingly the narrative covers the period when the first massive IBM computers arrived at the space agency, a development which has the potential to put their namesakes out of much-needed jobs – whose work was every bit as instrumental on fulfilling the mandate to get the United States into space, is not particularly original.
It is, in many respects a step-by-step chronological biopic which charts the way in which these women – Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) – broke through hitherto impenetrable barriers in their quest to have their considerable abilities valued every bit as highly as their white, mostly male, colleagues.
But it is perfectly and winningly executed, combined a spirit-raising feel good inspirational message with an examination of the emerging Civil Rights Movement which carried with it the real potential to change the way in which America treated its segregated black minority.
Selma, of course, this is not but it can be seen as a companion piece of sorts, illustrating with humour, tenacity and some raw emotional authenticity, how many black people fought their own battles on a day-to-day basis to gain the acceptance routinely accorded to white people.
Katherine Goble Johnson is a perfect example of how hard and long these women had to fight to prove themselves worthy of the advancements they eventually gained.
Originally just one of many women in the West Computing Group, where the black computors were kept far their white colleagues in the East division, Katherine is hand selected for her genius-level mathematical abilities – a opening scenes show how much of a maths prodigy she was, so gifted she was accelerated through school on scholarships – to work for Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), director of the Space Task Group who along with head engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) and a team of exclusively white-shirted white men, was responsible for getting the spacecraft safely into orbit and then back down to Earth again.
She has her work cut out for her with Stafford, who is a cardboard cutout character at best, meant to represent the constant opposition Katherine faces, none too pleased to have a woman double checking his calculations and a black woman at that.
Along with his passive-aggressive actions – it’s never clear who is responsible but someone finds a separate coffee pot and labels it “colored” in a pointed reference that Katherine is not welcome – Katherine must face a slew of obstacles including having to go to a restroom for colored women half a mile away from her office.
While her daily trips to the toilet are fodder for some delightfully funny visual gags with the talented mathematician forced to run from her current work building to her old one and back again, they make a serious point – here are immensely talented people, key to the American effort to get people into space, who are treated in many instances like they simply don’t matter.
Katherine’s colleagues in arms and close friends, Dorothy and Mary also must fight their own titanic battles but each rise to the challenge in ways big and small, and in transforming their own lives, contribute to the wave of change affecting American society as a whole.
In a number of ways, Hidden Figures is reasonably formulaic, using a David vs. Goliath template to tell its highly-engaging story.
But so exquisitely well-told is this inspiring tale, which champions the underdogs and those progressive individuals such as Harrison who was instrumental in racially-equalising NASA’s workplace, that you simply don’t care.
The screenplay by Melfi and Allison Schroeder, barely misses a beat, seamlessly combining the impressive career advancements of all three women with their personal lives which are underpinned by warm and loving families and a strong sense of community.
Hidden Figures is a prime example of how formulas do not need to strangle emotionally-affecting, inspiring storytelling and that it’s what you do with them that counts in the end.
Occupying a period of history when America was in a flux – technologically, culturally and racially, the film is a testament to the power of singing the praises of unsung heroes, of illuminating how profoundly their contributions matter, and how US society would be all the poorer if people like Katherine, Mary and Dorothy hadn’t dared to challenge the odds and fight for their own piece of the American Dream, and in the process, fundamentally alter the way it operates for all.