Crunching Numbers, “Hidden Figures”

Hidden Figures!

In the 1960s, the Academy Awards were a very different experience down in the “Colored Audience” section of the Kodak Theatre.

Remember yesteryear when the media and movie fans complained that the Academy Awards nominees were distressingly monochromatic? What a difference a year makes, when studios choose to give leeway to filmmakers willing to bring something different to the table. Of course it helps when the “different” films are also really good films. Hidden Figures isn’t the only Best Picture nominee to figure that last part out, and I’m betting it won’t be the last.

Short version for the unfamiliar: Based on a nonfiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly, the film amalgamates the true stories of three black female engineers at NASA, each groundbreaking in their own ways with math and science during an era when the American space program was very much headquartered in The South, with segregated bathrooms and boys-club attitudes. Racism was awful enough, but racism plus sexism could kill careers and drive women out of STEM fields. Good thing we’ve solved that detestable problem since then, right, dude scientists out there? Right? RIGHT?

Anyway: Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae from Moonlight) was NASA’s first black female engineer, who had dual college degrees but needed additional courses to qualify for the promotion, which required her to go to court to take them at a local, still-segregated Virginia school. Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) would master analytical geometry and was instrumental in calculating John Glenn’s first epic orbits around the Earth and trajectories for some of his later spaceflights. Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) graduated from college at age 19 and would become the first black female supervisor on campus, who taught herself and her calculating coworkers Fortran so they could tackle their new greatest enemy, the one thing that could put them out of work faster than male white corporate oppression: the International Business Machine.

Ultimately, in the spirit of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, our heroic trio and all the white guys would unite to take on the worst villainy of all: COMMIES. The Russians took an early lead in the space race and made America look and feel sad. NASA aimed to catch up and surpass them, but couldn’t do it without these three and the most math we’ve seen in a film since A Beautiful Mind or Good Will Hunting. Data will be sorted; formulae will be crushed; chalkboards will be covered from top to bottom in every equation you’ve forgotten since high school.

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Kevin Costner is the composite white boss who needs those solutions and maybe some New New Math to save the day, but first he may need to step up for the ladies. Kirsten Dunst is the racist office manager who self-identifies as Not A Racist. That guy from The Big Bang Theory is fictional composite Paul Stafford, the embodiment of every movie male who thinks he doesn’t need any help to do his job, but keeps making just enough errors and oversights to justify being babysat, which begs the question of how he ever got and held the job in the first place. Glen Powell (Expendables 3) is John Glenn, Saint Astronaut, the kindest and quickest to overlook skin color when it comes to tackling the mission and getting the best mathematicians on the job so he can make history and not get killed by space.

Mahershala Ali (Moonlight, Luke Cage) is the military man who woos and eventually marries Katherine Goble, a widow with three daughters when the film starts. (In real life Mr. and Mrs. Johnson remain very much alive today and have been married 57 years as of this writing.) Aldis Hodge from TV’s Leverage is Mary Jackson’s Concerned Husband, a would-be firebrand who thinks all forms of civil rights advancement must involve rage and street fights, and finds it hard to believe Mary can show him a subtler path toward equality.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Racism is The Worst, with sexism a close second. And math knows no color. If ingrained social baggage had been more important than teamwork, America may never have gotten past the stratosphere, let alone landed anyone on the Moon, which would be a terrible everyday sight with a giant hammer-and-sickle carved into its lighter side.

None of the women had their skill sets handed to them easily. Obstacles had to be overcome — colored restrooms in inconvenient places, colored library sections, colored coffeepots, information withheld because of “security clearances”, demeaning looks and comments and all you’d expect from white guys comfy in their white-guy dominion and overprotective behind their imaginary white moat. And as a reminder of the other prejudices in play, Mary Jackson receives a few wise words on the subject of accomplishment from her older Jewish mentor, who of course tosses in a Holocaust mention for slight value-added perspective.

Nitpicking? To teach some of these lessons and shape the film into a linear narrative, their respective timelines are shifted so their accomplishments occur nearly simultaneously during the movie’s narrow time frame, which picks up in 1961 and climaxes in John Glenn’s Friendship 7 launch in 1962. In reality NASA was desegregated in 1958, by which time Our Heroines had already cleared most of the hurdles depicted here. Compared to other Southern institutions, NASA’s progress was actually years ahead of the curve. But the point preserved is that progress was necessary.

In keeping with the prim workplace setting, Hidden Figures may be the least violent major-studio civil rights film in years — no punching or shooting, no fire hoses, no lynching, no burning crosses, no smashed buses or seedy backwater jails. The closest we get to a physical threat is a small group of picketers staring down police dogs who are all bark and no bite. It’s cool that they nailed a benign PG rating, but at times it can feel nearly antiseptic in a political climate where some crowds think mob clashes should be the new norm.

One scene comes precariously close to turning into one of those clichéd chick-flick moments where all the women party at home and lip-sync to some ancient Top-40 hit. Then they cut the scene short and we’re spared. Maybe there’ll be a extended version on the DVD. (If they’re taking requests and would be willing to go obscure, might I suggest Billie Holliday’s “It’s Like Reaching for the Moon“?)

So what’s to like? If you were hoping for Angry Black Women Yelling at Stupid Racists: The Motion Picture, this is a little more gradual than that. Octavia Spencer is a level-headed de facto supervisor keeping her temper professional, not Minny from The Help furiously baking contaminated pies. The esteemed Ms. Henson doesn’t launch forth as Cookie from Empire and cut all of NASA to shreds with razor-sharp snark, but maintains a humble, almost downtrodden demeanor in the company of her employers until she builds up enough confidence to realize they’re not exactly her “superiors” and steps up to her calling. Diligence, patience and decorum are the weapons of the day, calmly navigating the stifling, rigorous bureaucracy until their intelligence and contributions refuse to be denied their recognition and importance — within NASA, at least, if not to the world at large for a few decades too many.

Math isn’t the most visually stunning field for one-on-one competition, but Melfi does what he can to drum up some concerning drama through credible-looking polynomial solutions, hand-drawn graphs, comparative discussions regarding ellipses and parabolas, and Old Math made new again. Props to Henson for effortlessly penciling and chalking reams of equations and differentials without pause, and rattling off paragraphs of dialogue more convoluted than any Star Trek technobabble about compensating for hull ionization fluctuations by redirecting secondary dilithium conduits to the forward antenna array. It’s as if she spent six months training with a wizened calculus sensei to master her craft before filming.

The traditional success-story arc seems less revelatory and more old-fashioned than most of the other Best Picture nominees, but I don’t really care. Are we so overflowing with high-profile films about black female pioneers — especially ones this funny and heartfelt — that this one deserves more choosiness than its competition is getting? A few internet commenters I’ve seen out there come at Hidden Figures with their white-guy lecture-face like, “Oh, really, so you’re a Best Picture nominee, huh? Name Scorsese’s three best films.” Format and populism aside, Hidden Figures covers ground that a lot of other filmmakers and studios aren’t, and admirably lets its inspirational stories speak for themselves.

It’s also nice to have a rare mainstream movie in which main characters pray in Jesus’ explicit name rather than in the name of Vague Non-Committal Hollywood Deity. Always a pleasant, welcome surprise in my book.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Hidden Figures end credits, but we confirmed NASA advised on the film (as did Lockheed and the Department of Defense, among other bodies), but stopped short of actually endorsing it. Non-endorsement is not unusual for a warts-and-all historical drama. Also, you can see the roll call for the various second-tier visual effects houses that contributed with names such as Important Looking Pirates and Rocket Monkey, either of which might or might not make a suitable fallback employer for that jerk Paul Stafford.

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