Hidden Figures tells the long untold story of the black women who worked as mathematicians at NASA in the 1950s and 60s, and who played a vital role in the glory days of the American space programme. These women were subject to a perfect storm of intersectionality, beginning their time at NACA (NASA’s predecessor) in a segregated workplace, at a time when it was considered perfectly reasonable to treat women as intellectually inferior to men. Theodore Melfi’s film is based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, whose father worked at NACA/NASA with many of the people involved. Shetterly’s book (apparently—I haven’t read it) is a pretty factual account, that covers the complexities of the organisation’s politics and the many figures in management who were involved in determining the course of her subjects’ careers. This is an incredibly important story, not least because the space race is commonly understood as something that involved a lot of white, male engineers and technicians, in the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R., and the centrality of these women to the success of the American programme destabilises that myth. It is an important story for an understanding of the history of the African-American community, of the history of women in science, and of the history of spaceflight.
So it’s a shame this film was made the way it was. I find it extraordinary that this formulaic hack-job was awarded Best Picture at the 2016 Oscars, since the Academy is perfectly capable of recognising a movie as rigorous as Parasite, which won in 2019. It’s not that it’s amateurishly made—in fact, it’s extremely slick, written directed, acted and produced with consummate skill. But its narrative is a series of transparently contrived scenes, each designed to ram home one particular aspect of its argument, and accompanied by a heavy-handed soundtrack which clearly instructs the audience what it is they should be feeling at any given moment. Most of the characters, other than the central trio of mathematicians, are composite figures, and the consequence of distilling a great deal of historical incident down into a small number of characters is that it gives the impression of segregation at NASA being overturned by a few visionary white guys. The film was written and directed by white people, with, I’m sure, the best of intentions, but sadly you can tell—and it has come in for some criticism as a ‘white saviour narrative’.
When a story is told in this way the headline is very clear: three black women called Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson worked at NACA/NASA in the 1950s and 1960s, and played a crucial role in that organisation’s success. This is a headline statement that badly needed to be made, and I’m glad it was so widely disseminated. What is lost in this approach is the possibility of either history or biography. Any kind of detail or particularity is flattened out in the radical simplification of these women’s lives. History is reduced to a linear sequence of uncomplicated causation (and whatever the study of history may disclose, it is never that); and the people whose documentary traces constitute that history are rendered as generic types devoid of any of the grit and gristle that makes humans human. The subjects of this film are figures of towering importance, but while they have been very publicly named, to the cinema audience they remain hidden.