Hidden Figures

When I first heard about Hidden Figures, I had high hopes: Hollywood making a movie about black women is rare enough. To make a movie about nerdy black women is incredible. (Though 2016 produced at least two such films: don't miss Queen of Katwe.) But then I saw the trailer, and it looked pretty corny. But then I started hearing from everyone about how great the movie was. Okay, fine. One ticket please.

So is Hidden Figures corny? Well, yes. Is it manipulative? Hell yes. Is it entertaining, inspirational, and important? Absolutely.

The film documents the journey towards recognition of three African American mathematicians employed at NASA's segregated West Area Computers (humans, not machines) division in the early days of the Space Race. Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) takes center stage as the quiet genius tasked with helping a team of white male engineers calculate the orbit of John Glenn's first flight; meanwhile, Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), the woman in charge of the "colored computers", takes an interest in programming NASA's new IBM mainframe, and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe in an underwritten part) yearns to be the agency's first black female engineer.

Hidden Figures plays fast and loose with the facts. For instance, it posits that Johnson, Vaughn, and Jackson were best friends. In fact they were just acquaintances. And in 1958, three years before the film's story opens, the real Mary Jackson earned her engineering degree and West Area Computers was desegregated. (The "colored computers" sign was itself removed during WWII.) Finally, it's hard to believe that Johnson, despite her brilliance, was time and again the only person, in a room filled with the brightest minds in America, capable of making the right calculations. I get the point emotionally, but Melfi and cowriter Allison Schroeder lay it on a bit thick. Most egregiously, Hidden Figures would have us believe that, in 1961 Virginia, not a single person smoked!

Does any of this matter? For you, maybe not. For me, only a little.

I would have liked more of a sense of teamwork on screen – Johnson didn't launch John Glenn into space all by herself. Yet despite the large groups of people in Johnson's Space Task Group and in Vaughn's West Area Computers, almost nobody outside the principal cast utters a word. I realize that extras are cheaper than actors with speaking parts, but NASA's famous camaraderie is absent from the proceedings, making the film feel weirdly muted.

Of course, playing up the camaraderie in the Space Task Group – the notion that these math geeks might look past Johnson's sex and race just because her intelligence was so obvious – might come across as phony in its own way, even if, according to the real Johnson, that was mostly true. And if the film hewed closer to the facts, it might be a little dull, for surely the real Johnson had to share the stage with all those other geniuses, each arguing his hypotheses, each clamoring for a turn at the blackboard. Perhaps it's enough that Hidden Figures invents a priggish lead engineer, played stick-up-his-butt straight by Jim Parsons, who stands in Johnson's way again and again, never apologizing or warming to her, even when he knows she's right. This is an accurate depiction of many male engineers, and highlights a problem that persists for women in STEM today.

Anyway, Hidden Figures is certainly a crowdpleaser, and I was a very pleased member of the crowd. Though nitpicking the facts is sort of appropriate for a film about people who had to calculate trajectories down to the tenth decimal point, in this case I advise you to turn off that part of your brain and just enjoy the movie. The production values are great, the cast is mostly flawless (Henson is particularly charming, and Kevin Costner is surprisingly likable as the fictitious head of the Space Task Group; only Kirsten Dunst, with a slippery accent, falters), and if it inspires any young black girl – or anyone, really – to take an interest in math or science, then it's done its job.