Many people were glad to see the back of 2016. More celebrities died than we were ready for, Britain and the US both saw unexpected voting results, and the news was filled with Zika, migrant deaths and Olympics scandals. Then 2017 didn’t get off to the jolliest start, with millions upset over what was happening in the US capital; but the peaceful marches and rallies that took place the day after the presidential inauguration were a reminder that things are better when people come together for the greater good.
Hidden Figures is the story of three Nasa employees who were instrumental in the great space race between the USSR and USA. The fact we’ve sent astronauts to space is surely one of the most inspiring proofs of human ingenuity. What makes this film truly inspiring, though, is that the trio of staff were black women in the early 1960s, a time when segregation was rife, and a woman’s place was still in the home.
Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) works as a “computer”, or mathematician, one of a group of black women overseen by acting supervisor Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer, who has received an Oscar nomination for her role). Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) is an aspiring engineer. All three are genuine geniuses, but because of their race and their gender, they seldom get chances to show it. (And there you have it, the second meaning of the film’s title.)
All that changes when Katherine is assigned to the Space Task Force, a group (obviously of white males) trying to do the maths to get the first man into space. Director Theodore Melfi really hammers home the difficulties faced by people of colour at the time: when Katherine walks into the room, everyone freezes and stares in revulsion; she is not trusted to see all the data, yet is expected to check the maths on some crucial calculations; she is provided with a separate coffee jug so she doesn’t touch the communal one; she cannot use the nearby bathroom, as it’s “whites only”, so must run half a mile to go to the toilet in another area of the compound, and half a mile back.
Meanwhile, Dorothy is doing the work of someone much better paid, but her supervisor refuses to entertain the idea of her applying to officially become a supervisor; and Mary is determined to become an engineer, even though she cannot get the qualifications required, because the school that hosts the course is closed to black people.
The film is a revelation on so many levels. It is astounding to see how badly non-white people were treated in 1960s America, even those who had proved themselves capable of working at one of the world’s most forward-thinking establishments. It reveals the little known story of the people were unexpectedly toiling behind the scenes to get the first American into orbit. If you’ve seen The Help, you’ll know Spencer is a tour de force on camera, but this film reveals Henson and Monae to be mistresses of their craft, too (and utterly snubbed in the Oscar nods, in this reviewer’s opinion). It shows the resilience of individuals who, in the face of almost unbelievable racism and sexism, manage to love, laugh, learn, create and teach. Despite the harsh history lesson in the struggles endured by minorities, the film manages to be joyful, and gloriously uplifting. (The Pharrell-produced soundtrack only makes this even more true.)
There’s obviously a happy ending – after all, we know that the late John Glenn made it into orbit – but there is a jubilance and scarcely contained excitement that runs throughout the film, even when things take a turn towards hopelessness.
Hidden Figures tells a story that should have been shared decades ago, about people who should have been celebrated for years. But perhaps the film has come exactly when we most needed a reminder of what can be achieved when we set aside our differences and just get on with life.
Hidden Figures opens February 2.