Hidden Figures will change the way you think about the phrase “Space Race”.
Empire’s Golden Globe Award Winning Taraji P. Henson plays real person Katherine Goble, a gifted American mathematician. As well as being a whizz with numbers, she’s also black, a woman and it is 1961 in segregated Virginia.
NASA are struggling to compete with the Soviet Union who have launched the Sputnik 2 satellite, complete with Laika, and the Russians are about to put the first man in space.
The film opens in Virginia in 1926 and we see Katherine as a child being admitted to a prestigious college free of charge in recognition of her academic prowess.
We jump forward to 1961 and she is in a broken down car en route to her job at NASA.
A State Trooper pulls up behind her vehicle, steps out and interrogates Katherine and her two companions, checking their identification, before they convince him they are in a hurry to get to work to stop the “Communist Invasion”.
At this, the Russkie-phobic copper offers a police escort and the three NASA employees race to work, tailgating the officer’s car, leading to one of them uttering a classic line about it being the first time three Black people ever chased the police.
When they arrive at their jobs, which are vital to the advancement of the United States, we see further evidence that the barriers that face Katherine, (and her two friends and colleagues – Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan, a computer room supervisor, and budding engineer Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson), are almost as daunting as the challenge of getting a man into space.
Standing in their way are state laws that deny African Americans equal rights, preventing Blacks from participating in regular life to the same degree as Whites, superiors who are threatened by the appearance of Black women in the workplace, and behaviour indicative of generations of entrenched racism that are, frankly, startling to watch in this day and age.
I’m not so naive to suggest that we live in a world without prejudice in 2017, but to see the looks on the faces of the white folk when Katherine pours herself a cup of coffee from the urn in the lab she shares with the twenty or so boffins crunching the numbers to calculate a safe space flight, you can see the revulsion on their faces at the idea of a Negro touching something they alone are permitted to use.
The same goes for the policy of segregated toilets, and it is this farcical situation that creates one of the most memorable scenes in the film. Katherine, soaked and bedraggled from the 1.5-mile round trip to use a coloured ladies bathroom is reprimanded by her boss, director of the Space Task Group Al Harrison – an in-form Kevin Costner. Her response to this dressing down in front of her all White, all male colleagues is another highlight in the film – an impassioned speech about the inequality she faces on a daily basis.
Costner’s reaction is almost as priceless, as he marches to the bathroom to take matters into his own hands.
While the film comes from an American perspective about the space race and the monumental brainpower required to fire astronauts into the stratosphere and deliver them home safely, it also shows us a uniquely American take on race in that era, and the huge and ongoing struggle that people of colour face against an inherently biased system.
That’s without delving into other points made in the film such as the issue of gender politics or the notion that technology may threaten the job security of a whole class of people who have only just earned that right to work.
None of this is done in a heavy handed or ham-fisted manner, rather, by incorporating vignettes from each characters’ personal lives, the overall result, (in much the same way as a great film is made), becomes a powerful story about multiple hurdles being overcome by the collaborative efforts of like-minded people.
Notable performances from the supporting cast include Kirsten Dunst as Vivian Mitchell a supervisor who is a borderline racist, and Jim Parsons as Paul Stafford, head engineer in STG who takes particularly dislike to his authority and intellect being questioned by a Black woman.
The man sitting atop the tip of the rocket literally staking his life on the accuracy of the numbers, Glen Powell as astronaut John Glenn, is one of the few White people in the film with any regard for the “hidden figures” toiling away in the background, that will make his round-trip voyage possible.
There are also more intimate relationships at play, with the magnificent Mahershala Ali as Jim Johnson, a military officer who marries Katherine, offering further personal details to this compelling tale.
Nominated for 3 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay for Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, and Best Supporting Actress for Octavia Spencer who jostles for position in this category with Viola Davis, Naomie Harris, Nicole Kidman, and Michelle Williams. Five incredible performances from five outstanding actresses in five unforgettable films, not the least of which is Hidden Figures.
This story, inspired by true events and thanks to the huge effort from the creative team in front of and behind the camera make this not just an incredbily enjoyable film to watch, but a definite Oscar Best Picture contender as well.
5 Stars – Joyful and Uplifting – A First Class Space Race Drama.