Why I loved Hidden Figures

Warning: contains spoilers.

Last week, I went to see Hidden Figures. For those who haven’t heard of it, it’s a film about a group of black women who worked for NASA, and their unsung contributions and achievements. As a strong advocate of greater diversity in the tech industry, and a woman with a maths degree, I was super excited to see this film.

The day before I went to see it, I was talking about it with a friend and fellow woman with a maths degree. She mentioned that she’d read some mixed reviews of the film and wasn’t sure if she wanted to watch it. I hadn’t read the reviews, and chose not to before watching the film, but it made me a little nervous that I would be disappointed.

I needn’t have worried; I loved this film. If nothing else, it was a wonderful breath of fresh air to see three brilliant black actresses taking lead roles. In fact, the whole cast was very strong, despite being given some cringey, hamfisted dialogue in places (like when Jim Parsons tries to explain orbital mechanics to a room full of NASA engineers by drawing circles in the air). I particularly enjoyed Janelle Monae’s spunky but graceful portrayal of Mary Jackson, and Kirsten Dunst provided an excellent foil to Octavia Spencer as the embodiment of “I’m not racist, but…”

It is, in many ways, a civil rights film, but one which looks at struggle through the lens of hope and overcoming, and I think this annoyed some people. Of course, hope and overcoming is often only half (if that) of the story; of course there was pain and suffering that I can’t even begin to comprehend in segregated America, but I don’t think that delegitimizes a film which chooses to celebrate the remarkable achievements of the oppressed. In the reign of Trump, a man who embodies white privilege and wealth, I relished this story about how people granted so few entitlements still had the courage to dream and the tenacity and self-belief to make their dreams a reality.

Hidden Figures has been criticized for being whitewashed. Most of this criticism seems to be centered around Kevin Costner’s character Al Harrison, a white hero who stands up for his employee, the black female computer Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P Henson). The most notable example of this is when he notices that Katherine sometimes leaves her desk for 40 minutes at time, because, unknown to him, she has to use the “colored” toilets in a building half a mile away. On her return, he chides her for slacking off during a mission critical time, and she responds with an impassioned outburst, challenging him to empathize with how demeaning it is to have to run across the NASA campus each time she wants to relieve herself because she is deemed not good enough to pee in the same bathroom as white people. The following scene then sees Costner personally taking a hammer to the “colored” sign outside the segregated bathroom and remaking that at NASA, they all pee the same colour.

None of this actually happened. The real Katherine Johnson apparently just refused to use the segregated bathrooms, and critics have argued that the film should have stuck with the truth, as it actually speaks of greater resilience in the face of segregation than the fiction. The storyline has been accused of being a vessel for the white hero construct, so that white people watching this film can feel better about themselves; so they have the option of associating with Costner, the progressive, pro-equality white guy, instead of the other more prejudiced and oppressive white characters like Parsons or Dunst.

While this may be true, I think there’s also more to it than that. Although Al Harrison is a fictional character, he is based on a composite of different directors of NASA during Katherine’s time there. It was a time when there were indeed white people who stood against segregation, and I think it’s nice that the film has created an amalgamate character to recognize that. When being a bystander is so easy, we should celebrate those who refused to be one. I also thought that the bathroom storyline was a very powerful portrayal of how humiliating, ridiculous and arbitrary segregation was, and while it wasn’t subtle, it was passionate and thought-provoking and a joy to watch.

In some ways, this film reminded me of The Martian, in that it is a film which celebrates the triumph of the human spirit, intelligence and cooperation through a story about space travel. Yes, it’s a rose-tinted view, but so what? It’s a feelgood Hollywood film, not a Louis Theroux documentary — just don’t go mistaking one for the other. And frankly, some days I just need to spend a couple of hours believing that human decency can and has blazed as brightly as human progress.

To read more about what parts of the film actually happened, or are based on real life events, this is a good place to start.