1960s NASA wasn’t all thick-rimmed spectacled number-crunchers in lab coats carrying clip boards, you know.
Hidden Figures offers a more accurate depiction of an organisation in a time in which the United States and Russia were feverishly attempting to out-do one another in their quest to explore outer space, and ultimately to place a man on the moon.
Living as we do today in a world so utterly dependant upon the power of the computer, it seems hard to believe that there was ever a time not so very long ago in which we relied far more upon raw brain power, and a time when institutions such as NASA would employ vast teams of mathematicians in order to perform the considerable brain gymnastics required to calculate rocket trajectories and the like.
Whilst it should be acknowledged that racism still rears its ugly head in today’s society, it’s also hard to believe that there was actually a time, in relatively recent memory, when ‘coloured’ folk were considered to be such second class citizens in their own country.
Theodore Melfi’s film portrays a society that has implemented, almost without recourse to moral values, a system of segregation which thinks nothing of allocating ‘coloured’ seats on buses, insists upon the use of separate toilet facilities, and rations books within public libraries for the ‘negro’ population, denying them the resources with which they might improve their lot in life.
Despite their skin colour, Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), owing to their considerable mathematical talents, have all found employment within NASA. These African American ladies and their colleagues are confined to claustrophobic quarters in a separate building, far away from their white peers. There, they spend each day doing the academic leg-work for NASA’s white employees who, needless to say, are the ones to enjoy the benefits of their toil.
Despite a considerable shortage of opportunities to progress, the sassy trio all seem hell-bent upon bucking the trend and making headway in the fiercely white-dominated world in which they live. By hook or by crook, they’re not going to miss an opportunity, and if need be, they’ll make their own.
Melfi’s film is slick, well-paced and very watchable, if perhaps lacking in a little depth here and there. It tells an important story though, and one, due to its PG-rating, that will be accessible to a younger generation too, and considering the important life lessons to be learnt here, that can only be a good thing. That said, the PG-rating here is a bit of a mixed blessing. Issues of racial divides, slavery and so on have all been well covered at the cinema in recent years. Importantly, historical accounts of racial tensions that have been committed to celluloid in the past have tended to be fairly weighty, graphic and explicit affairs. Hidden Figures in comparison seems a tad lightweight and superficial. Whilst one wouldn’t expect additional malevolent content to be added purely for gratuitous effect, it does seem as though a greater focus could have been made on the maddening psychological impact that each of the ladies must have experienced at the hands of an obdurate peer-base and society in general.
If nothing else, Hidden Figures – owing to the relentless drive and will to succeed exemplified by its three leading ladies – is an ode to hard work, commitment, restraint and tolerance in the face of racial prejudice. Most importantly of all though, it shows the real value of always being prepared to grab hold of life’s opportunities when they come along, no matter how scarce those opportunities may appear to be.
Hidden Figures is a film that proudly suggests – cliché or not – that it matters not what our race or creed may be when we are all working together towards a common goal.
It’s hardly a ground-breaking sentiment, and may seem obvious to us twenty-first century citizens of planet earth, but given the attitudes of America’s deep south in the 1960s, it’s a sentiment that would most definitely have been considered “one massive step for mankind…” – if you’ll excuse the ropey astronomical parlance!