Last night Charles and I got to watch one of the most remarkable recent films we’ve seen: Hidden Figures, a 2016 release loosely based on a true story about the early days of the U.S. manned spaceflight program. During the two years (1960-1962) in which the story takes place, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) ground control operation was headquartered in Hampton, Virginia (before President Lyndon Johnson got Congress to move it to Houston in his home state, Texas) and for the mathematics needed to plot the trajectories of space flight they relied on “computers,” back when the word “computers” still meant what it had in the 19th century: not electronic devices but human beings who performed mathematical calculations and reported the results — and quite a few of the human computers who performed this service were African-American women. Of course, they were subjected to both the racist and sexist prejudices you would expect from white men in the South in the early 1960’s, including being stuck in the comparatively menial job of calculating and being segregated in the “West Computing Room” on the west side of the base while the white male engineers, technicians and higher mathematicians did their thing in the east wing.
A woman named Margot Lee Shetterly wrote a book called Hidden Figures about these outrageously unsung heroines of the U.S. space program, and it was turned into a film by director Theodore Melfi from a script he wrote with Allison Schroeder. The film focuses on three of the African-American women “computers” — all real-life people — Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) — “Coleman” was her birth last name; “Goble” the name of her first husband, who fathered her three daughters but died before the events of the film begin; and “Johnson” the name she acquires from Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), the Black Marine colonel she meets and instantly can’t stand (because he makes a sexist remark about her) but of course, this being a movie, falls in love with and marries during the course of the film; Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), who’s stuck in the computer room even though she really wants to be an engineer; and Dorothy Vaughan (Olivia Spencer), the oldest of the three, who sneaks into the whites-only section of the local library, steals a book on the computer programming language FORTRAN and uses it to get the center’s newest acquisition, an IBM 7090 electronic computer, to work after all the hoity-toity white guys have abjectly failed. Obviously she’s learning to use an electronic computer so she can keep her and the women under her supervision (in yet another example of the ridiculously petty racism that pervades this story, she demands that she be given the job title — and the pay — of a supervisor since she’s doing the work of one, but she’s routinely told that’s impossible) employed, much the way some carriage drivers looked askance at the advent of automobiles, while others realized that if they wanted to keep their jobs they’d have to learn to drive the new cars.
If nothing else, the film shows just what it must have been like to live under segregation and the sheer pointlessness of the exercise: in one of the film’s recurring scenes, Katherine is promoted to a position in the east wing but she’s still not allowed to use the one women’s restroom there because it’s reserved for white women. When she needs to relieve herself, which is often since she’s pretty much living on coffee (which she has to make for herself because she’s not allowed to use the whites-only coffeepot either!), she has to dash across the entire campus to use the “colored ladies’ room” in the west wing — carrying the big binders containing the information she’s working on and continuing to calculate even when she’s on the toilet — and when one of the big NASA cheeses she’s working for, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), wonders why she’s so often absent from her desk, the explanation she blurts out becomes essentially her Norma Rae moment: “There are no colored bathrooms in this building, or any building outside the West Campus, which is half a mile away. Did you know that? I have to walk to Timbuktu just to relieve myself! And I can’t use one of the handy bikes. Picture that, Mr. Harrison. My uniform, skirt below the knees and my heels. And simple necklace pearls. Well, I don’t own pearls. Lord knows you don’t pay the colored enough to afford pearls! And I work like a dog day and night, living on coffee from a pot none of you want to touch! So, excuse me if I have to go to the restroom a few times a day.” Harrison’s response is to march down to the west wing with a large metal object with which he starts whacking down the “colored ladies’ room” sign, then announce to all and sundry that the days of segregated restrooms at NASA are over: “Here at NASA we all pee the same color.”
Melfi and Schroeder take advantage of the fact that the 1960-1962 time period was not only the beginning of manned spaceflight but also the headiest times for the African-American civil rights movement: we see stock footage of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Black church minister in Hampton, Levi Jackson (Aldis Hodge), proudly proclaims himself part of Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and preaches resistance to segregation from the pulpit. Mary Jackson acquires a white mentor, Karl Zielinski (Oleg Krupa, in a rare appearance as a good guy), who as a refugee from Nazi Germany who lost his family in the Holocaust has zero patience for racism and makes it clear to Mary that she’s got the skills needed to be an engineer and she’s essentially doing the work of one, so why doesn’t she apply for an engineering job? Only just when she’s ready to do so the NASA honchos impose a requirement for additional math training at the University of Virginia, which of course is an all-white institution; they offer extension courses at Hampton High, but that too is restricted to whites and Mary has to go before a white judge to ask for permission to attend there. She persuades him to do so by researching his background and pointing out that he was the first member of his family to get off the family farm, go to college and build a professional career as an attorney and a judge, so he shouldn’t object to her wanting to be the first Black woman to become a NASA engineer — though as he’s ruling in her favor, he still puts in a caveat: “Only the night classes, you hear?” And of course not all the NASA supervisors are as supportive as Al Harrison and Karl Zielinski: the women also have to deal with people like Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), Katherine’s immediate boss, who keeps tearing her name off the trajectory reports she submits because “computers don’t write reports”; and Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), who keeps giving Mary the runaround about her application to be given a supervisor’s title and be paid for the supervisor’s work she’s already doing.
Hidden Figures isn’t a ground-breaking movie, and there are bits in which Melfi and Schroeder “tweaked” the story to fit the movie conventions (astronaut John Glenn, played by Glen Powell, did indeed specifically request that Katherine personally perform the trajectory calculations for his orbital flight in 1962, but several weeks before the event: Melfi and Schroeder couldn’t resist the transparent movie device of having him make the request while he’s already on the launching pad at Cape Canaveral getting ready to enter his capsule), and I can think of a few minor flaws. According to imdb.com, director Melfi wanted to create a visual difference between the “cold” sets of sterile offices at NASA where the calculations were made and the “warm” environments in which the women lived when they weren’t at work, but alas, the way he and cinematographer Mandy Walker did that was to shoot the women’s home environments in full-out past-is-brown mode. As I pointed out in my comments on the film Selma, the past-is-brown schtick is even more annoying in a film in which the central characters are Black because their brown skin tones tend to blend into the brown backgrounds and it’s not always easy to pick them out. Also Melfi hired Pharrell Williams to be the film’s music director and to write and sing a series of songs commenting on the action, and though his contributions aren’t bad, when the Black women are driving to Hampton and Ray Charles’ “Sticks and Stones” plays over their car radio as source music, I couldn’t help but exclaim, “At last! A great record!” Williams’ contributions aren’t bad (there’s nothing here as infuriatingly banal as his song “Happy” — for a long time I’d thought Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was the most banal song that would ever be written about happiness, but Williams surpassed him), but I couldn’t help but wish through much of the film that Melfi had gone with a deeper, richer African-American singer-songwriter (like Rhiannon Giddens, maybe? It would have been especially appropriate in a film about both Blacks’ and women’s empowerment to have an African-American woman instead of an African-American man on the soundtrack). Also Glen Powell is cute and fun to look at but was way too young to be playing John Glenn, who at 41 was the oldest of the original seven Mercury astronauts and was (famously) already virtually bald — Ed Harris, who played Glenn in the film The Right Stuff, was closer to the real one in both appearance and mannerisms.
But what’s wrong with Hidden Figures is virtually irrelevant compared to what’s right about it: obviously the filmmakers wanted to create an inspirational tale about heroic Black women who beat all the odds and not only made their contributions to the U.S. space program, but (at least eventually) got honored for what they did — and in that they succeeded magnificently. I suspect the only reason Hidden Figures got short shrift in the Academy Awards was that it was up against two other major Black-themed movies, Moonlight (the eventual Best Picture winner — at least once they got the mixup with the envelopes sorted out!) and Fences (indeed, the two films got so confused that during the Golden Globes Hidden Figures was often referred to as Hidden Fences), but Hidden Figures is a magnificent film in every way, impeccably acted, strongly directed, sensitively written. It’s also one of those movies that plays very differently in the Trump-era Zeitgeist: it’s impossible to watch President John F. Kennedy (depicted in a stock clip of his famous “We seek to go to the moon, and to do all these other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard” speech) and not make invidious comparisons between the way we were governed then and the way we’re governed now, and between a President who spoke to uplift us and the current one, who speaks to bring us all down to his level of evil, malevolence, pettiness, and spite.