Hidden Figures- the book and the film

Hidden Figures is a story of three ordinary black women living in 1960s America. But  these particular women worked as mathematicians for NASA and were responsible for the calculations which ultimately lead to men landing on the moon.

The film is based on Margot Lee Shetterley’s biography of black women who worked as computers in NACA and NASA. The acting is stellar: Katherine Goble Johnson is played with a delicate determination by Taraji P. Henson, Mary Jackson is given a sassy twist as portrayed by Janelle Monáe, and the motherly Octavia Spencer play Dorothy Vaughan. We also have Jim Parsons (Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory) as Katherine G. Johnson’s boss and Kevin Costner as Al Harrison (his superior). In general, the film is an enjoyable and inspirational attempt at depicting both proud and disgraceful aspects of America’s modern history.

But I will readily admit, it’s hard for me to make up my mind about it. I was so convinced I would like it, given what I had thought of the book, the soundtrack and the trailer that I am now genuinely confused whether my high expectations have been fulfilled or not. What follows is less a review than a comparison between the film and Margot Lee Shetterley’s book.

First of all, I am impressed by how the film managed to tie the three separate women’s lives together, centering on Katherine. I had wondered who would be chosen as the heroine of their film. Though Katherine’s achievement made her a natural candidate, I did not realise that the scriptwriters would simply to decide to make her close friends with the two other prominent women in her vicinity. This solved the problem (which the book had suffered from) of the loose connections between the characters. Such loose links are natural in a history book, but rarely admitted into film.

I also liked the way in which the astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) interacted with his team of engineers and mathematicians in the movie. He was a convincingly sympathetic character, and his humour and sense of cool control suited the man who was a former air force pilot.

But there are some plot elements which were introduced into the film which baffled me completely,  in particular with reference to the civil rights movement. The crucial and controversial moment comes in the final scene of the movie (SPOILER ALERT) when Katherine G. Johnson is allowed into the control room to be a witness of John Glenn’s flight into space, as the single black woman present.  Shetterley tells us explicitly that Johnson was not in the control room at the time “Katherine sat tight in the office, watching the transmission on television”. In the film version, her presence in the control room breaks my heart. We might think it obvious that the person who calculated the flight trajectory should be allowed into the control room regardless of race or gender.  It is a case of poetic justice, and the film shows us exactly what we think should have happened.

I wonder whether this reassignment of poetic justice is not part of America’s problem at the moment. The USA cannot seem to acknowledge that its system did not allow a hardworking black woman to achieve the respect that a white man in her position would. Perhaps the first step towards change would be an acknowledgement that merit does not always win the day, and discrimination all too often holds the upper hand- even in 21st century America.

Again, in another scene of the movie, Katherine’s boss is shown demolishing the sign saying ‘Coloured Restroom’. Much as I wish that had been the case, Shetterley specifies that Katherine used the white bathroom in her section, because of her relatively ambigous skin colour,  and that other black men and women struggled with bathroom segregation throughout their time at NASA.

I know that those corrections to history are well-intentioned. They show events as they should have been, and perhaps they make the film work far better as a source of comfort.

Yet the stories of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine G. Johnson are inspiring despite the fact that these women were not given the recognition they deserved during their time at NASA. These women were ‘the boulder pushers’ ( a term shamelessly taken from Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook). Their achievements stand for themselves even if their contemporaries did not recognise them as they should have. And if we are to truly recognise what they have done, I think it is right to admit that they were not treated as they should have been. Their achievement comes from their courage to work against tremendous adversity, and the full strength of that adversity needs to be acknowledged.

Image credit: 20th Century Fox (review purposes only)

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