Wednesday, 15 February 2017


20th Century Fox Films

History, as they say, is written by the victors, and in the Western world those authors almost always tend to be white males. So it would be completely understandable if, like me, you were unaware that women were involved in the Space Race.

Not just involved, these women were integral and essential to the American space program. These women also happened to be black.

Man's desire to orbit the Earth and then walk on the Moon has been taught in schools for decades, with names like Armstrong, Aldrin, Gagarin and Sputnik synonymous with that pursuit. Chances are you even know the name of the Soviet dog (Laika) or the American chimpanzee (Ham) that went into space, but do you know the name Katherine Johnson? No? Well, without her mathematical expertise, Ham the Astrochimp may very well have been the last American man into orbit.

Hidden Figures, directed Theodre Melfi (St. Vincent) and adapted from Margot-Lee Shetterly's non-fiction book by Allison Schroeder, tells the remarkable true story of Katherine Johnson (nee Goble), as well as Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan: three of the women who worked at NASA's Virginia operations in 1961. Dubbed 'computers', these women, black and white, but of course segregated, worked on the calculations for not only getting the astronauts into orbit and safely back down again, but also for preventing their fiery deaths in between.

Of those computers, Katherine Goble (played perfectly by Taraji P. Henson) was considered the best. And when the Russians got Yuri Gagarin into orbit before the Americans, Virginia's head of operations Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) wanted only the best, male or female, white or coloured, working on his team. "We get to the peak together, or we don't get there at all."

The rest of Harrison's team aren't as open-minded or open-armed, which sees Katherine, a single mother of three, battling racism, sexism and the fragile male ego just to keep up. But keep up she does.

Meanwhile, Mary (Janelle Monae), at the encouragement of her Polish-Jewish emigre engineer boss, opposes Virginia's segregated education system so she, too, can study to become a NASA engineer, while Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) struggles to get the recognition, and the pay, of a supervisor from her own boss (a mealy-mouthed Kirsten Dunst), whilst also recognising the threat -- and opportunity -- posed by NASA's latest purchase: an IBM mainframe.

Melfi and Schroeder's treatment of this story may not be as remarkable as the women themselves, but Hidden Figures succeeds as both feel good entertainment and entertaining history lesson.

It may not be subtle when it comes to its depiction of race relations, but just as there are people who were unaware that black women worked at NASA in the 1960s, there will be younger audiences who can't comprehend a world where a white man and a black woman can't drink from the same coffee pot. Or why a woman has to run more than a mile on a daily basis to use the bathroom because the nearest bathroom is off-limits to her simply for the colour of her skin.

The scene where Harrison confronts Katherine about her being MIA on a daily basis, and her retaliatory outburst for all the shit she's had to put up with is one of many moments, big and small, where this trio of women stand their ground - and gradually gain some -- and the audience gets to cheer. Yes, Hidden Figures is a crowd pleaser but there's no shame in that.

And no, overcoming racism wasn't this simple nor did institutional racism or sexism end at NASA, or in America, as a result of these women's achievements. But just as we've forgotten what an amazing achievement it was for humankind to first walk on the Moon, Hidden Figures is a wonderful celebration of women well overdue for recognition, providing them their long-awaited moment in the sun -- and a permanent place in the history books.

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