Hidden Figures: A film Review

Author: Ken Wais 1/29/17

I like this film, and give it a qualified nod of approval.  As it will be clear from the succeeding comments, this is no raving review for Hidden Figures.

 

This feel-good tale is a charming inspirational showcase for young black (or even non-white) females of all ages.  Made even more adorable by the fact that is based on a true story.  First, let's flag it right there.  Anytime some film from Hollywood land is labelled based on a true story, this means exaggeration, reinterpretation and disproportionate morphing of the facts have been made.  It is undoubtedly the case here.  And if that irks you a little that I’d write something like that, you’ll be even more riled by what comes next.  I don’t even have to check the facts to know if they have been tampered with.  Just watching the story unfold is enough for me to know some of it’s pure fiction. I’ll details those Hollywood added-ins shortly. 

 

The director, Theodore Melfi, stylistically made a flick that bears some resemblance to James Cameron’s apologist film Avatar.  This was the film that really was all about apologizing for the brutal invasion of the western hemisphere and near genocide of native peoples by European whites.  Cameron set it on another planet to obscure this theme, but any astute viewer could see through that.  It too, was a nice, happy flick with a fairy tale ending and the blue people overcame evil white invaders.  Hidden Figures is in some ways an apologist work.  It seeks to recognize the work done by amazing black women during a time that this country was in what was called the space-race.  Moreover, it mixes chauvinism with racism to show how both women and specifically black women overcame the prejudices of white men.  That’s not apologist, but really preaching at us.  Notice how the principal white actress in the film begins to form a feminine bond with Katherine Goble?  This is the chauvinist portrayal embedded within.  Goble is the dominant character of the film.  The depiction of male prejudice to women in general is understated, but clearly a part of the theme.  He keeps having the male actors make references to how women can’t be here or do this, not to mention a Negro woman.  The director has an agenda for us.  He wants us to buy his soft political view of the times.  What do I mean by that?  Oh well, Melfi is saying there was racism and sexism, but these brilliant black women were so bedrock to this project they were afforded special status and overcame those obstacles, and, I say and, and, and… it wasn’t really that bad, wink, wink. He does this without any basis for this portrayal.  Was it because the powers-that-be at NASA knew these women were trustworthy? Or some personal conviction on the part of the director might have been behind it.  At that time Communist spies and their supporters were greatly feared in all U.S. governmental agencies.  Did NASA reason black women were less likely than white women to be Communist spies as they were conspicuously conscience such associations would lead to their imprisonment? I don’t know, but the film doesn’t give us any background on this, and that’s another contextual failure. 

But what about what I call the car, the ladies, and the white cop incident? I mean come on!---that was nicest cop pull-over I’ve ever seen.  To have a sequence like shown, now, when black men have lost their lives all over the country from just such pullovers by white cops, is almost an insult.  Believe me, it was no better in 1961, I lived through it, (though I was only 8 in 1961). This is another soft socio-political play in this film.  It wants to play the elements of racism down, at least as it applies to these three women.  It wants us to believe that the educated white society of NASA in Virginia could overcome racism.  To focus on the race relation horrors of 1961 America would detract from the point this film wants to make, so it had to be sugar-coated. Here is an example: Kevin Costner tearing down segregated restroom signs, and getting Catherine Goble into classified board meetings.  You want another example?  Mary Jackson winning over the cold heart of a southern segregationist judge to attend an all-white high school for engineering classes.  Only in Hollywood did that happen.  She attended the college alright, but not the way it happened the film.

Okay, I’ve trashed the film enough now I did say I like this film.  The film does play true to the technical mathematical aspects of the time.  I know this as a mathematician.  For the uninitiated I must say some of the symbolizations shown were just random equations. The director had to give the film a setting, so he had a bunch of equations helter-skelter shown in the camera frame shots. He never considered that a real math person might try to look at them. That being the case, the discussions of differential geometric orbits are accurate.  When I think of three black women doing this in that time I am amazed!  The film is showing viewers here that the need to beat a space rival, e.g. the USSR made a racially stratified country lower its level of bigotry. Yet, it fails to show why this was the case.  We are just given a group of colored women computers without context for how that became so.  That’s a minor flaw.  Whatever was the motivation for NASA to employ these three women, they made themselves incredible success stories.  With that said, here is where the film depicts a story of personal accomplishment for each woman. 

Katherine Goble (Taraji Henson) is the gifted differential geometrician of the film.  Henson nails the role of the nerdy bespectacled mathematician.  We find she’s also a woman that has been visited by tragedy with three young daughters to rear as a widow.  Her male counterpart plays a small supporting role and that was another mistake on the part of the director.  He should have had a much more expansive place in the film. Henson exudes the sense of a woman that lives by exacting discipline, whom does not countenance mistakes in her personal life or her mathematical calculation.  She’s the precisian with the power to challenge any of her white counterparts.  She stole my heart in this film, more than the other two protagonists.  The shortcoming she overcomes is her diffidence.  Katherine is use to taking orders from the white establishment, she defers to Harrison’s every command.  Costner plays the role of the dictatorial manager that is waking up to the potential of this odd black woman to great effect.  But, gradually by stages, Katherine realizes that the white overclass that renders her subservient is not so smart.  She begins a journey to self-discovery.  She is driven by the very culture that excludes her to do better than they can.  And here is where I started to personally identify with Goble.  I have time and time in my real-life career had to prove how good I was with this software, or that hardware, or make analyses that go beyond my job description, etc.  Each time my egotistical juices made me overcome these challenges to my knowledge.  This is what is implied in Catherine Goble, she’s an arrogant, and egotistical enough to slay the white racist Goliath that opposes her.  The other two actresses play minor roles in the same mode.  For that reason, I can’t give them much more than praise as supporting actresses to Henson.

And one last criticism is that some of the superhuman feats that Henson pulls off are examples of how Hollywood has goes over the top.  I don’t believe for one minute Catherine Goble ran back and forth to the colored restroom every day during her time at NASA.  Her ability to come up with splash-down calculations in a split-second was pure fiction.  Some of her feats make her the first super-computer.  Yes, that pun is intended. 

This is where the screenwriters (Melfi and Schroeder) got together and said….let’s get my fictional imagination going now…

Hey look we gotta give’em something extraordinary or it’s gonna get boring…Hey how ‘bout have her just off the cuff come up with the splash down coordinates….how are we gonna do that Ted? I don’t know….Wait let’s have meeting where Costner gives her a chance to make the calculations…you know he hands the PEN and says Katherine you wanna try?....but Ted you know that never happened….I know I know, but we gotta keep it uh knock out ya know Alli?  Okay, Ted…but I kinda don’t like it…trust me it’ll work.

 

Postscripts

Did you realize that computer, the word, denoting a human being doing the calculations was the source of our modern word computer now exclusively applied to a machine?  The black women in the calculations group were computers, meaning persons making mathematical computations. It seems weird now to hear this, but when I read Allen Turing original paper on the topic of computing machines, it’s clear that was the meaning of the word computer, i.e. a person performing calculations.

Also, what is really commendable about this film is I think most people who were alive then DON’T know about these ladies. I didn’t!  In all the time that has passed for it not to be showcased on some documentary is amazing.