Hidden Figures makes no bones in trailer what it’s about. It’s the story of three women of colour who were employed by NASA as computers - that is talented mathematicians who ran the calculations while the men did the thinking and the abstract mathematics - before electronic computing devices were really available.
The film actually shows the installation of the NASA computer that everyone says “your digital watch has more computing power than the computer that landed men on the moon had available” so you start to see the death of the human computer within the film.
It should be noted the film is a drama, not a historically accurate biopic. For example, it pulls together the real life stories of Dorothy Vaughn (who was the first woman of colour to be a supervisor at NASA), Mary Jackson, the first woman of colour to become an engineer at NASA and Katherine Johnson who was permanently assigned to the Flight Research Division and simply moved to the Space Task Group with everyone else when that was formed. These all happened before the time the film is set and not how it is shown, although they did happen and the film makes a celebration of it and is stronger for the rewriting that we see. However, one of the on-going themes of the film, Katherine’s co-authoring a paper is completely true. Although it’s hard to be sure, many of the other small incidents are, I strongly suspect, true as well - they’re the kind of thing you can imagine happening and they enliven the film.
This film pulls off a number of quite tricky things.
First and foremost, it’s a film about the early years of the space race in which doing the maths is the core part of the story. Now I’m not a mathematician, although I like maths, but they manage to make watching someone doing calculations tense and gripping - which even to someone like me is not normally a fun thing to watch!
Second, this is a film set absolutely in segregated Virginia. It doesn’t hide from that at all and some of the moments are heartbreaking to be honest, although others are empowering or uplifting, even to a white person like me. (A white person like Donald Trump might disagree, he’s far closer to being a racist than me.) One or two are absolutely hilarious. In America this might play very differently, heck the three women this film is about are all alive so they might well see it differently, but from my white privilege it felt as if they did “show don’t tell” for what life was like for them without it being preachy. I think that’s far more likely to make just about everyone think that segregation was a major blot of America’s recent, still in living memory, past and racism continues to be a blot on every country’s present than any other approach.
Finally, it takes a less in-depth look at the sexism inherent in the system. That’s less strongly touched on and it’s tempting to question whether that’s because sexism is still so embedded in US society, if they felt it would take away from the rest of the film or if they felt celebrating the life of three women of colour in this way, while essentially sidelining the men, made the point strongly enough. My inclination, given how strongly the deal with the racism, is to assume they didn’t want to detract from that. Whichever it may be, the really overt sexism is held up and challenged in several places, while in others it is let slide.
This film is different to my normal fare but both the story of maths behind the space race and particularly the women of colour that underpin that and the lives they lead in a segregated America shortly before I was born combine to make a compelling story and a film that is well worth seeing. It’s not vital to see it on the big screen really, there are no special effects or similar, but you should see it.
Bechdel test: There was a computer scientist, a mathematician and an engineer in a car… they certainly do talk about men, but they talk about maths, fixing their car, their job prospects and all kinds of things. There are multiple scenes that pass the Bechdel test.
Russo test: It’s unlikely that there isn’t an LGBT person in the whole of NASA at this time but we don’t see anyone who is out and proud. 0/3. I’m not surprised by that, even if NASA was ahead of America in being a meritocracy, gay rights was really not a thing in 1961, being out in a place that dealt with military secrets, not a good career move.
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