10-16 February 2017 #845

Hidden figures

The film works so well because of the strength of the characters and the incredible charisma of the actors playing these women
Sophia Pande

There are nine films nominated this year for the Academy Awards Best Picture category, and while I have not yet seen them all (with four down, and some to go) I can already tell that Hidden Figures will be my favourite.

While La La Land (reviewed last week in this column) is the fore-runner for the award, and Manchester By the Sea boasts the heavy weight that these films demand, with Ken Lonergan, an extremely talented playwright turned even more finessed director, and the likes of Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams in the cast, Hidden Figures with its feel-good story and loveable characters doesn’t really stand much of a chance -- except that the film is based on the incredible true story of a number of black women who worked at NASA starting in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, making crucial computations as mathematicians and engineers, helping to put the first Americans in space and on the moon.

Adapted from the non-fiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, the film follows closely the lives of the mathematicians Katherine Goble Johnson (the lovely, intelligent Taraji P Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (the magnificent Octavia Spencer), and engineer Mary Jackson (the feisty, boundary breaking musician Janelle Monáe) the three brilliant women who are the most famous of the team of black women who computed for NASA but were never recognised at the time.

The film works so well because of the strength of the characters and the incredible charisma of the actors playing these women who struggled, with humour and with grace, to raise families and against all expectations to excel in their fields, feats that are now finally acknowledged with the book, the film, and a 2015 Presidential Medal of Honour for Johnson (there is also now a wing named after her at Langley).

At a time when an American President threatens to open up deep divides within the U.S. and without, Hidden Figures is a film with a formidable reminder of the injustices perpetuated by white people against those whose only difference from them was the amount of melatonin in their skin.

Katherine Johnson, the most brilliant mathematician in her generation was forced to use a separate coffee pot than her white male colleagues; Dorothy Vaughn fought to be promoted to supervisor even while eminently qualified, and Mary Jackson went to court to be allowed to attend night classes at a school that only allowed Caucasians.

The achievements of these women threaten to be undone in ugly times like this when people are barred from their freedom (of movement, to speak out) based on religion and skin colour. It is a shame that Ms Johnson would have to see a day when a man like the deeply racist Steve Bannon has gained crucial access to such a powerful post in the White House.

Watch trailer