The last century has seen more change across the world at a greater rate than all human history before that, technological advancement driven both by war and the development of global communications and social changes driven by the upheaval of those wars and the consequence of visibility of how others are treated for better or worse, allowing those who would demand change for themselves to know they are not alone and to organise.
Inspired by Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, Theodore Melfi’s film adaptation Hidden Figures takes a liberal approach to the literal truth of the events of the West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, through the 1960s, but in doing so communicates a broader truth of that turbulent decade of adversity and achievement.
Co-scripted by St Vincent‘s Melfi and Mean Girls 2‘s Allison Schroeder, it is the story of three friends, Katherine Goble (Person of Interest’s Taraji P Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Snowpiercer’s Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Moonlight’s Janelle Monáe), who travel together every day to contribute what they can to America’s space programme but find themselves marginalised and undermined despite their determination and capability.
A mathematical prodigy who was advanced through school and left her teachers speechless with her aptitude and vision of numbers, Katherine is transferred to the Space Task Group, ostensibly to check the projected orbits calculated by head engineer Paul Stafford (The Big Bang Theory‘s Jim Parsons) but is denied access to information deemed beyond her security clearance and forced to drink from a separate coffee pot to the rest of the all-white team.
Despite having functioned in the role of supervisor of her team Dorothy is denied the official recognition of the post and the wage rise associated with it by Vivian Mitchell (Midnight Special‘s Kirsten Dunst) who also blocks Mary’s attempts to gain entry to the engineering programme, but simultaneous to the race war is the cold war, with Russia’s own space programme advancing far ahead of America, first with Sputnik then with Yuri Gagarin’s orbit.
The expertise of the women is needed, and Al Harrison (Man of Steel‘s Kevin Costner), director of the Space Task Group, is concerned only with getting the job done correctly and has no tolerance for disruption which reduces the efficiency of his team, while engineer Karl Zielinski (X-Men: First Class’ Olek Krupa) offers his own experience as encouragement to Mary, a Polish Jew standing beneath a space capsule: “We are living the impossible.”
Unlike Arrival and contrary to its name, Hidden Figures is not afraid to show the working and it’s all done old school with chalk and blackboard, much of it accompanied by a cracking period soundtrack in addition to Hans Zimmer’s score which owes more than a little to Alan Silvestri’s Contact.
Despite a running time of over two hours the film flows evenly with drag minimised as efficiently as the design of John Glenn’s Friendship 7 capsule and never lapses into melodrama, the ensemble cast giving performances of underplayed honesty rather than showcasing, letting the story speak for itself.
An often light-hearted look at a serious matter set in an age of optimism and frustration, the higher up the chain of command the less the colour of the ladies matters, but first they must climb that ladder, a lesson which still echoes six decades later in the disproportionate under-representation of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
A feelgood movie which never succumbs to sentimentality, with minorities, women and scientists once again in danger of becoming marginalised in the current American administration it is a reminder that more can be achieved through co-operation and combining resources than fostering division through prejudice and ignorance, and there has never been a more important time for these hidden figures to step forward.