The opening scene of Hidden Figures succintly summarises the film itself. Three African American mathematicians employed at NASA get stuck on the highway, and a white cop comes around asking uncomfortable questions. He’s evidently racist, but when he realises they work for NASA, he respectfully escorts them all the way to their workplace. You see, white people during the Cold War were apprehensive of African Americans, sure, but they were more wary of Russia. The whole scene itself has no eerie, ominous undertones as you’d expect. It’s what it is, and as the scene ends, the three women are shown partying it up in their car, for, as the most ebullient of them, Mary Jackson, says, “Negro women in 1961 following a white cop… it’s quite something.”
Genre: Biographical drama
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner
Storyline: A celebration of the contribution three African American mathematicians made to America’s space cause
We live today in a world when a minor reduction in internet speed feels like the stuff of nightmares. Hidden Figures brings to our attention a slice of history that can never be told enough. It’s a world when women weren’t thought to be equals. It’s a world when African Americans weren’t thought to be deserving of the same rights as white people. Hell, they are employed in NASA as ‘human computers’, almost a poetic metaphor for the negation of their humanity. Hidden Figures is an unabashed celebration of the contribution of three mathematicians in particular—Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson—in the American space cause.
Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, Hidden Figures never forgets to entertain. There’s always a song in the corner. The moments of heroism littered along the script help too. Like when Katherine shoots down a sexist man by telling him that she was hired by NASA not for wearing a skirt, but for wearing glasses. Like when Katherine’s boss, who is more concerned about the quality of work than about equality at workspace, once gets riled up enough to go hammer and tongs, literally, at the ‘Coloured Bathroom’ board. Like when a white man runs half a mile to look for Katherine when astronaut John Glenn says he will fly if he has her consent. These are all stand-up-on-the-seat-and-clap moments. While on it, reflect on John Glenn asking a human to cross-verify a computer’s calculations during that era, and savour the delicious irony by contrasting it with what we do today.
“What! I cannot believe 1001+99 is not 2000!”
Yet, the enlightening bits are not in the evident display of racism. It’s not when Katherine’s white colleagues notice her drinking coffee off their flask, and add a ‘coloured flask’ the next day. It’s not when she has to run half a mile to get access to a ‘coloured restroom’. We have seen such displays in cinema before. The insightful bits are when entrenched racism gets exposed. Like when Dorothy, who’s already doing the job of a supervisor, asks to be officially recognised as one, and is shut down by Vivian (Kirsten Dunst). When Vivian eventually tells her she isn’t racist, Dorothy simply responds, “I know that’s what you truly believe.” You see, Vivian isn’t vile; she just hasn’t thought about it.
Films like Hidden Figures promote the contributions of unsung heroes, as much as as they serve as timely reminders for us to consider the consequences of our actions, and more importantly, their cause. However, despite terrific performances (Octavia Spencer has been deservingly nominated for an Oscar), Hidden Figures isn’t really revolutionary cinema or extraordinary writing. But sometimes, well-done necessary cinema is good enough.
This review was written for The New Indian Express. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to this page if you’d like to share this review.