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Tuesday 28 February 2017

Hidden Figures, Film 2016, co-written and directed by Theodore Melfi, 8* out of 10

This subversively entertaining comedy drama will get under your skin as it tells the little known story of three talented black women working in 1950s segregated Virginia, making the most of a unique opportunity offered by the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States for an important step towards emancipation at the workplace. 

In 1962, John Glenn in the Friendship 7 became the first American to travel into space and make it back to earth in one piece. Based on real people and events, Hidden Figures puts the spotlight on little-known aspect of National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) achievement, in catching up with and ultimately overtaking the Soviet Union in the space race between the two superpowers. It is the role that “computers” (in two senses of this word) played in making this possible. “Computers” was the job title of the mathematically gifted people who would perform the mathematics necessary to engineer the space rockets and send them into orbit (as well as denoting the digital machine that has revolutionized modern society). One section of the human computers at NASA consisted of black women. Three of them, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) and Katherine G. Johnson (Mary Jackson) are hitherto unsung heroes portrayed in this film. At the time, Virginia was a segregated State. This meant that black people were made to work in offices separate from their white colleagues, had to take their coffee from separate coffee machines and use separate toilets. Moreover, it was, “of-course” considered normal to not to see women as equal to men at work. But the national importance of the space race and the introduction of electronic computers provided a unique opportunity for minorities and women to make a quantum leap in emancipation at NASA through professional achievement. 

Hidden Figures (a title with two senses, both applying to this tale) tells the story of three talented black women took advantage of a unique window of opportunity. The screen writers made a risky choice by choosing to tell it as a comedy drama, but they succeed. Not least, because the comedic format makes the scenes that show the “banality of segregation” hit us in the gut even more effectively and memorably, than a purely dramatic treatment would have. The normality with which intelligent white men and women accepted that situation in the 1950s and 1960s serves as a reminder that existing social arrangements have a seductive power. Reasonable people manage to justify themselves what should evidently be unjustifiable. The main reason why the two white men, mission director John Harrison (Kevin Costner) and astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) break through the convention of their time is not a commitment to civil rights, but a recognition that it is for their own benefit to do so. For the first, his career and for the second his life depends on it. The important steps in the emancipation of the black women at the centre of this story were a by-product of the need of NASA to innovate and succeed. Enlightened self-interest aligned with the advancement of civil rights.

Based on the book by Margot Lee Shatterly, Allison Schroeder and Theodore Malfi have done an excellent job on their screenplay.  A fine ensemble cast competently directed by Theodore Malfi keeps the audience interested and entertained from beginning to end. Hidden Figures is exactly what a good comedy drama based on true events can and should be. As a bonus, you get a look at the charismatic Mahershala Ali (Academy Award for best supporting role in the film “Moonlight”).  This film gets under your skin. Highly recommended.

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