This year’s token race-related film is “Hidden Figures,” a movie based on the true events of three black women who worked at NASA and were essential in launching John Glenn into orbit. Was it accurate and was it good?
Yes and yes.
Hollywood loves films that point out the horrendous history of the United States when it comes to racism. It lets everyone know how progressive they are. To be fair, these stories do need to be told, especially ones that were forgotten or never told in the first place. “Hidden Figures” falls in the latter category.
Where this film differs from other race-related films that take place in that era is the emphasis on the three women’s accomplishments. Racism is in the background, not the foreground. Because of this choice, this film inspires rather than leave a bad taste in your mouth about American history.
The wonderful science nerds at Skeptics Guide to the Universe looked into the accuracies of “Hidden Figures” and discovered that it was as spot on as a Hollywood film can be. You can listen to their review here.
Essentially, all of the major plot themes actually happened:
✔ Segregated campus
✔ Titles/accomplishments of main characters
✔ Petition for night school access
✔ Encouraged by NASA scientist to become engineer
✔ John Glenn asked specifically for Katherine Johnson
Petitioning the courts for access to night school is the type of scenario added to the script to emphasize the racial injustice at the time, but it happened. A white male NASA scientist encouraging Mary Jackson to become an engineer seems like a subtle injection to emphasize the equality among the science community. That happened.
What didn’t happen as advertised? The chronology of the story. Dorothy Vaughn became a supervisor several years before Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson accomplished their feats. For storytelling purposes, this gets a pass, but do know that all of this happened in the span of many years. Civil progress is never that rapid.
Also, the overt racism among the scientists was never a thing. According to Johnson, she always felt as part of the team and was never mistaken as a janitor or anything of the sort. Is this taking too much liberty with the story? Not really.
Producing a film where a black woman in the 1950s felt like everyone else would have undermined the amazing hurdles all three women had to clear. By making some coworkers a little more close-minded, we get a better sense of the realities for a black woman during that era, even if it wasn’t necessarily present in that specific environment.
Considering the inaccuracies of the film were inconsequential to the plot or the realities of the story, “Hidden Figures” did a glorious job of telling the story without giving it the typical Hollywood treatment.
As for the overall entertainment value itself, you would have to be a monster to not feel inspired or at least a little joyous by the end of the film. Additionally, “Hidden Figures” has the potential to make science cool for girls and young women of all backgrounds, and that’s enough for an A in my book.
Projected awards: “Hidden Figures” is nominated for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. Its only shot at winning an Oscar is with the latter, which is likely to go to “Moonlight.” Expect this great film to walk away empty handed.