Hidden Figures: Sweet, Smart, Spirited

Hidden Figures is the feel-good film of the year 2016. It’s a biopic of three black women who worked as mathematicians at NASA in the days when the Soviets and the Americans were competing for space flight supremacy. The space race in the 1950s & 1960s between the two bitter cold war rivals, culminated with sending a man on the moon. Initially, the Soviet Union beat USA by launching Sputnik 1 in 1957 and sending Yuri Gagarin as the first man in space in 1961. The Americans had to give a proper response in the face of growing sense of fear, defeat and humiliation. Perhaps the Americans were slow off the block due to inherent race and gender inequality in their society of those days.

The space race made heroes out of Alan Shepard and John Glenn, the two American astronauts. Yet, nobody knows about the contribution of Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, the three African-American women mathematicians. They remained hidden till this movie came out.

Hidden Figures is the story of three unsung, unknown space heroes of NASA. The three women protagonists of the movie lived in an age when race and gender decided your destiny. Segregation was the norm in the USA, and the glass ceiling was too low for women aspiring to join NASA as mathematicians. Your talent wasn’t enough to live the American Dream. Colour of your skin mattered. Gender decided how far you’d go on your chosen path. Racial tensions were glossed over on the surface yet were shimmering just beneath it. The movie talks of race, gender, space race, cold war rivalry, male chauvinism, feminism, advent of IBM machines, and fight for civil rights. It throws these diverse elements into a magic pot. What emerges from the pot is not some chaotic mess but a movie that is a beauty of the first order. Hidden Figures engages from the start to finish. It makes us believe in our dreams. There are different ways to walk confidently towards our chosen goal.

Katherine Goble, the human computer, chooses to forget the blatant bias of her NASA colleagues. She is plucked from the segregated division to join the Space Task Group of Al Harrison (Kevin Costner, playing a benevolent, warm boss). She is the only coloured woman in a room full of white man. She is the genius amongst the geniuses, yet is treated as furniture by her colleagues. There are no bathrooms for the coloured people in the building where Katherine now works. To take a leak she has to run a long distance in sun and rain, carrying her files to the loo.

Dorothy is a hardworking mathematician who wants to be made a supervisor. Despite being denied repeatedly, she continues to work and progress. She learns to program and helps many coworkers from becoming obsolete. Mary is the third woman, the youngest and the most plucky, who wants to become an engineer with NASA, an impossible dream for the black women of those days.

The movie is a crowd-pleaser. It isn’t subtle and proves that sometimes lack of subtlety can be a virtue. The knocking down of the segregated bathrooms, the opening sequence when a white police man escorts the three black women, the sequence where Mary coerces the judge to let her join a white-only school are some of the scenes that make you root for the underdog characters. The segregated bathroom sequences and the confrontation with the boss unaware of Katherine’s  daily trudge are now iconic. The production is lavish, cinematography brilliant. It’s a well written, well-acted movie. Theodore Melfi has chosen the style and narration of old classics. The story telling here is simple and linear, with enough of sugar to make it delicious.

The performances of the ensemble cast are uniformly good. Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Goble with warmth, and pluck. Octavia Spenser shines in her role as Dorothy Vaughan. She brings alive the agony, pain and determination of the woman denied her dues by the system loaded to favour one race and one gender. Janelle Monae plays Mary Jackson, the wisecracking rebel of the trio, with perfection.

The world is unequal, our dreams are impossible and challenges are too many. Yet, we must walk unafraid, confident. Go and watch Hidden Figures. It’s sweet, smart and spirited like its three heroines, an uplifting antidote for our cynical times.

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