Theodore Melfi (2016)
Hidden Figures is a crowd-pleaser and the box-office figures give an idea of the magnitude of the crowds being pleased: the picture, which cost $25m to make, has taken $171.3m worldwide in the two months since it opened in the US. Theodore Melfi’s second feature (his first was the modest St Vincent in 2014) is broad, unsubtle and a thoroughly deserved popular success. The screenplay by Melfi and Allison Schroeder is based on a non-fiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. Hidden Figures combines two differently stirring headline stories of the 1960s, African-American Civil Rights and the Space Race: it’s hardly surprising that the film rights were snapped up several months before Shetterly’s book was published (by which time the movie was nearing completion). The clever title is a pun; the title characters are black women mathematicians, employed by NASA at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. (Margot Lee Shetterly, who is African-American, was born in Hampton in 1969. Her mother was a professor of English at Hampton University, an historically black institution. Her father worked as a research scientist at the Langley Center.)
The film focuses on three individuals who, at the start, all work in Langley’s segregated ‘West Area’ computers division: Katherine Goble, a mathematical prodigy; Mary Jackson, who wants to be an engineer; and Dorothy Vaughan, the division’s de facto supervisor, though she’s not officially recognised or paid as such. The action is set in 1961 and early 1962, against the background of increasing pressure on NASA scientists in the light of Soviet space successes that culminate in Yuri Gagarin’s orbiting Earth in April 1961. Katherine (Taraji P Henson) is temporarily assigned as a ‘computer’ to the ‘Space Task’ group, headed by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Mary (Janelle Monáe) is sent to work with a group of engineers. In both cases, all their scientist colleagues are white males – although Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa), a Jewish concentration camp survivor, suggests to Mary, by way of encouragement, that he’s as much an against-the-odds member of the engineering team as she is. Back in the West Area, Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) learns of the impending installation of an electronic computer and realises machines of this kind could make her and her colleagues redundant. She teaches herself then trains the other West Area staff in the use of FORTRAN. The climax to Hidden Figures is the Mercury-Atlas 6 (MA-6) spaceflight of 20 February 1962, in which John Glenn became the first US astronaut to orbit Earth. By now, Katherine, no longer required, has returned to West Division. Minutes before lift-off, discrepancies in calculations of the space capsule’s landing co-ordinates cause Glenn (Glen Powell), who’s met and been impressed by Katherine at earlier stages of planning for Project Mercury, to request that she be asked to resolve the discrepancies. She does so but, after a successful launch, a problem with the capsule’s heat shield develops. Katherine’s spot-on advice on what to do next ensures that John Glenn survives re-entry and lands safely in the ocean.
According to Wikipedia, Glenn did specifically ask that Katherine Johnson verify the computer calculations for his historic spaceflight but ‘she had several days before the launch date to complete the process’. This is a hint of how shamelessly free with the historical facts Hidden Figures is (again according to Wikipedia) – in order to intensify the drama and the racial issues involved. Attentive viewers will notice from the film’s closing legends that Theodore Melfi has also bent the facts of the women’s personal lives to engineer a more immediately engaging storyline. In the movie, the widowed Katherine has a whirlwind romance with James Johnson (Mahershala Ali), a National Guard officer, and marries him; the epilogue tells us that Katherine Goble Johnson, who is now ninety-eight, has been married to James Johnson for fifty-six years. On the basis of what Melfi has shown previously, this is a chronological impossibility – but the Johnsons actually married in 1959, two years before they first meet on screen. That’s a very minor fiddling of facts beside the film’s account of the heroines’ professional lives. How much does such falsification matter?
Watching Hidden Figures soon after La La Land and Hacksaw Ridge was a salutary reminder of how subjectively one reacts to a director who blatantly works the audience. I sometimes pretend I simply don’t like films in which this happens but I know I’m not being honest. Theodore Melfi is as obviously manipulative – shaping the material to generate a particular response from the viewer – as Damien Chazelle or Mel Gibson. Yet not only was I swept up by Melfi’s movie; I didn’t try to resist and didn’t resent what he was doing. I think there are two reasons for this. The less positive reason is that the manipulation at work in Hidden Figures, compared with that of La La Land, seems unsophisticated. Melfi switches back and forth, and schematically, to tell the women’s stories, which take the form of a series of advances towards self-fulfilment and liberation – always achieved through their being determined and smart. Even when they’re on the receiving end of racism or sexism, Katherine, Mary and Dorothy always have a sharp putdown: as well as embodying the overarching moral argument, they win each mini-argument along the way. The more positive reason is that the Civil Rights motor of these stories makes them not only compelling but in essence truthful. Whereas Mel Gibson in Hacksaw Ridge exploits his hero’s commitment to non-violence to deliver a startlingly violent war movie, you never feel that Theodore Melfi is exploiting the racial injustice theme in a way that fundamentally distorts it.
Because the discrimination and segregation that Hidden Figures describes is inherently incensing, you always hope that Melfi (who’s white) won’t push it too hard. On the whole, he doesn’t. Some of the less obviously dramatic instances are particularly incisive: Katherine’s discovery that the other members of the Space Task group have introduced an apartheid system for office refreshments, with jars of coffee labelled ‘white’ and ‘coloured’; a librarian (Rhoda Griffis) who takes Dorothy to task for straying into the ‘white books’ section. There are seriocomic examples of one form of prejudice confounding another. At the start, Mary, Katherine and Dorothy, on the way to work, are pulled over by a traffic policeman (Ron Clinton Smith): he forgives them for being black and female when he learns they’re employed doing what he sees as anti-Soviet work. Mary wins the legal right to attend engineering night school classes at an historically whites-only college and arrives for the first lecture; the discomfited male professor (Michael Hartson) suggests to her that the syllabus isn’t designed for women.
Melfi does well to avoid suggesting that an act of recognition signals a conclusive, race-equality breakthrough: as Katherine prepares to return to the West Area, Al Harrison’s PA Ruth (Kimberly Quinn) presents her with a wedding present on behalf of the Space Task group – a pearl necklace, part of the uniform of white women at Langley. There’s a dutiful chill in Ruth’s affable manner as she presents the gift. Katherine’s high-speed, long-distance journeys from the Space Task group building to the nearest ‘coloured’ toilet in West Area are milked, though Melfi gets some tonal variety into them. Her big outburst when Harrison loses patience and demands to know where Katherine disappears to every day is delivered too deliberately: it needs to come out more unthinkingly, more unstoppably. The follow-up sequence, in which Harrison takes a jemmy to a metal toilet sign and declares all bathrooms open to all ethnic groups, is effective as a partly comic image – a white-collar scientist driven to effortful manual work. Melfi detracts from this with the accompaniment of the movie’s standard-issue inspirational music (by Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams and Benjamin Wallfisch). Katherine is repeatedly shown standing in physical isolation from her white co-workers. These shots are more eloquent than the emphatic ones of doors literally shutting in her face.
Taraji P Henson defines Katherine’s character strongly and clearly. She isn’t fluid moving from one mood to another but she’s highly likeable. Compared with both Katherine and Dorothy, Mary is an underwritten character and Janelle Monáe, though she’s proficient, plays her obviously (Monáe is better in Moonlight). The role of Mary’s Civil Rights activist husband (Aldis Hodge) is perfunctory too. Octavia Spencer gives a performance of maturity and authority as Dorothy. When the snotty white supervisor Vivian Mitchell insists that ‘Despite what you may think, I have nothing against y’all’, Spencer achieves dramatic and comic impact through her quiet delivery of the reply: ‘I know. I know you probably believe that’. Kirsten Dunst, a surprising choice to play Vivian, is very effective. Although Colonel Johnson is an unremarkable part, Mahershala Ali, as in Moonlight, lights up the screen from the moment he appears. (His physical resemblance to Linford Christie is even more striking here.) Ali’s imposing appearance is leavened by embarrassment in an early conversation with Katherine in which Johnson makes a chauvinist fool of himself, and by humorous charm in the delightful scene in which he proposes marriage. Kevin Costner is alert, precise and altogether excellent as Al Harrison. He’s convincing, it must be said, as a man with more paunch than gravitas – and in apparently failing to inspire his troops in the desperate pep talk that follows Gagarin’s space flight. As a combination of professional competence and limited imagination, Costner’s Harrison is very credible. Glen Powell is an appealing, though very young, John Glenn (Powell is twenty-eight, Glenn was forty in 1961). Glenn enjoyed a long, successful and pretty honourable public life in politics after his astronaut career ended. He died last December, aged ninety-five, just a few days before Hidden Figures opened. In conjunction with Katherine Goble Johnson’s remarkable longevity and standing, Glenn’s life and recent death boost the film as a celebration of real-life American heroism.
Theodore Melfi handles his big cast well, not least in dissuading actors who are mouthpieces for racism and misogyny from moral commentary at the expense of characterisation. This happens even when Melfi’s and Allison Schroeder’s writing of the parts in question seems to dictate crude playing. Paul Stafford, the touchy and egotistical head engineer who refuses to let Katherine’s name appear as his co-author on reports which she’s largely produced, is much less crude a baddie than he might be, thanks to James Parsons, who plays him. Frank Hoyt Taylor, as the judge who hears Mary’s plea to enrol for engineering studies, is also better than his role. No one in this film perpetrates the kind of smug, look-how-nasty-people-like-this-were-in-those-days number that we get from Jack Davenport in A United Kingdom, for example. Melfi makes liberal use throughout of news film of the period and this seems right – an explicit recognition of how the audience (or people of my and older generations at least) naturally perceive the history of Civil Rights and the Space Race. In a lighter vein, the sheer incomprehensibility of Katherine’s lightning calculations is always enjoyable. Hidden Figures begins with a mechanical prologue illustrating the phenomenal mathematical gifts of the child Katherine (Lidya Jewett); this is followed by the encounter between the heroines and the white traffic cop. These sequences are agreeable enough but you wonder how Theodore Melfi is going to keep things going for another two hours. You soon realise that the story and his button-pushing approach to telling it will see Melfi through. In the event, the themes and the acting do more than that: by halfway, Hidden Figures has become utterly absorbing entertainment. It stays that way to the end.
22 February 2017
 Further details are in the ‘Historical Accuracy’ section of the article at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hidden_Figures#Production