A Feel-Good Film; or, Hidden figures revealed

One of the things I’m preoccupied with is the need to celebrate black experience. History has been hidden from us, especially in the western hemisphere.  –  Paule Marshall in conversation with Nigerian critic ‘Molara Ogundipe-Leslie in Ibadan, 1977.

“It’s a feel-good film,” says my wife. It is. Discussed at length in an eight-page Wikipedia article with no less than 72 references, the 2016 movie Hidden Figures (the people and the math) is the story of “How Black Women Did the Math That Put Men on the Moon,” or “How a Group of Math-Savvy Black Women Helped NASA Win the Space Race,” to quote two of the referenced sources.

The story of how a group of highly gifted black mathematicians at the racially segregated Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, helped launch Mercury 7 astronaut John Glenn into orbit in 1962 in an effort to catch up with the Soviet Union and Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. 

A stellar cast of actors, with Taraji P. Henson (as ‘human computer’ Katherine Goble Johnson whom John Glenn asked to check the IBM calculations before the launching of his space shuttle), Octavia Spencer (Oscar and Golden Globes nominated as Best Supporting Actress as supervisor and mathematician Dorothy Vaughan) and Janelle Monáe (as mathematician and engineer Mary Jackson), and with Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst and Mahershala Ali in supporting roles, won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture.

The film is directed by (white) Theodore Melfi and written by Melfi and (white) Allison Schroder, based on a book by (black) Margot Lee Shetterly. Is this (race) important?

Several reviewers – see the Historical Accuracy part of the Wikipedia article – thought that some of the fictive scenes introduced a ‘white savior’ (Costner’s figure) in the film. Director Theodore Melfi defended his film: “There needs to be white … and there needs to be black people who do the right thing … Who cares who … as long as the right thing is achieved?” Others did not agree: “Hidden Figures was whitewashed – but it didn’t have to be.”

Margot Lee Shetterly says: “For better or worse, there is history, there is the book, and then there is the movie.” There had to be composite characters (“You can’t have a movie with 300” people) and timelines had to be conflated. And the Information is Beautiful blog concluded that – taking creative license into account – the film is “74% accurate,” summarizing that “the crux of the story is true … events that didn’t actually happen are at least illustrative of how things really were.”

The ‘based on a true story’ statement before the film, and the epilogue showing the real figures fictionalized in the movie are almost as important to me as the film itself. Katherine Johnson lived a long life, awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, NASA the following year dedicating the Langley Research Center’s Katherine G. Johnson Computational Building in her honor.

Hidden figures (partly) revealed, one story no longer hidden from us.