Wow, I’m late for this one. Sorry about that.
Now, long time readers know my thoughts on biodramas so I’m not gonna get into them here. Needless to say, they’re not my thing. But every so often, one comes along that peaks my interest. Usually these are something related to things I enjoy or a time period I’m interested in. Or in Spotlight’s case it had two actors I liked and the fact that I’m always one for knocking the Catholic Church down a peg or two on its hypocrisy. In the case of Hidden Figures, it has two things going for it right off the bat: The Cold War and Space Travel. The Cold War is at the tail end of my century or so long period of interest between it and the Victorian Era and I love me some space travel and I really wish we were farther along in our progress into space than we are now. That manned Mars mission can not come soon enough.
So what’s the story? During the 1960s, unknownst to the general public, African-American women mathematicians acted as computers to calculate the numbers for the space program in the West Area Computing Unit of NACA (Precursor to NASA). Among them were Katherine Goble, a maths prodigy, Mary Jackson, an aspiring engineer, and their informal supervisor Dorothy Vaughan. After Russia launches Sputnik, the director of the Space Task Group, Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner, is put under pressure to even the odds by sending up American astronauts and Katherine, played by Taraji P Henson, is sent to look over their calculations, dealing with the internalised prejudice of the department (both sex and racial) in particular that of the lead engineer Paul Stafford, played by Sheldon Cooper (Yes, I know his actor has a real name, but let’s face it, he’s Sheldon Cooper and he acts like it). Meanwhile, Mary, played by Janelle Monae, is encouraged by her Jewish supervisor to pursue an engineering degree, fighting against every roadblock that hits her and Dorothy, played by Octavia Spencer, prepares for the incoming IBM computers, determined to keep her and the other girls from becoming obsolete.
There’s also a romance subplot, but I don’t care.
Let’s ignore the historical inaccuracies (the compressed timeline, Al Harrison being created so as to simplify the management structure, etc.) and just focus on the film itself.
First off, the cast. These are great actors. Henson, Monae, and Spencer are all fantastic and you can see why the latter was nominated for an Oscar. The three have excellent chemistry, but they also work well with other actors their characters interact with: spouses, bosses, children. Each has their own story and, while Katherine gets more focus, all three are important. All three develop and all three have satisfying resolutions. Jim Parson plays the know it all annoyance as well as he always does though he does eventually learn. Costner does well as the authority figure and even the kids are decent actors. This is just a really good cast.
If you hate a character then you hate them for their attitude towards the other characters which reflects the attitude of the time period, not for the acting. Even with that attitude, most of the characters are portrayed as being good people. Not one is vilified, they’re just influenced by biases of the times and they learn to overcome them over time. That doesn’t mean that attitude is justified, it’s still horrible, but there are more obstacles than there are actual villains. This isn’t a story about (pun not intended) black and white morals, but about science prevailing despite prejudices of the era.
I like this story a lot. As I’ve said previously, anything with space and science involved is gonna get my attention really quick. It’s why I like sci fi so much. More importantly, this is a part of American history that isn’t talked about/ known to the general public. The contributions of women and women of colour especially, are almost always ignored in favour of hailing the accomplishments of white men. It took them this long to stop naming a Yale University college after a white supremacist and instead after a woman who was one of the pioneers of computer programming, after all. If this is something we can show to children, girls especially, in classrooms to help encourage them to get into science, I’m all for it.
The sets and costumes are all very well done. They reflect the time period and, as far as I know, that’s portrayed accurately. The movie was nominated for Best Original Score, which I can’t comment on because I don’t know music, so I’ll take their word that it’s good.
What I hope we get out of this movie is more people becoming interested in science, the space program in particular, more opportunities for actresses of colour, and more stories like these being told: historical women, not just in science but other fields as well, getting the acknowledgement and appreciation they deserve. We’ll have to see if this happens, but for the time being I can easily recommend it. As of this writing, it’s still in theatres. Go take your date on Valentine’s Day or just go yourself and help yourself to some discount chocolate the next day.
(Photo via 20th Century Fox)