From Theodore Melfi comes the Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures, a tale regarding the true story of three African American women who worked at NASA during the 1960’s. The film is based on the biographical novel by the same name written by Margot Lee Shelley.

It cannot be questioned that the film’s response to the treatment and segregation of not only black people, but particularly black women, is a refreshing and necessary one, which honoured the tales of its characters. However, it left me to question whether the large amount of humour and comedy within the film was there to try and ease the discomfort for American viewers, as it is their nationality that are being highlighted as the cause of such discrimination and unjust behaviour experienced by Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Janelle Monae.

Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, is promoted to the Space Task Group due to the increased pressure for NASA to get their first man in to space, following the successful mission of the Russians. Not only is she discriminated against by the other members of the group, which is entirely male, based on her gender, but they are also shocked at the hiring of a black person, in a building where there isn’t even a bathroom for her to visit.

“The comedy aspect comes from the black women, the inferior individual in this situation, standing up to her boss”

They highlight their disdain by allocating her a coffee pot labelled ‘coloured’, after they see her using the communal one. She does, however, quickly gain the respect of her superior, Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner, resulting in his knocking down the ‘coloured’ sign above the bathroom and thus desegregating the toilets at NASA, and also removing the same sign placed on the coffee pot.

In order to keep up to date with the mathematics which are constantly changing, she requests that Harrison allow her in on his meetings, to the objections of Stafford (the head engineer, played by Jim Parsons). In a humorous power struggle, Johnson steps forward and essentially requests that Harrison not be pushed around as he is in fact the director of the Space Task Group. The comedy aspect comes from the black women, the inferior individual in this situation, standing up to her boss. This is a commonly used trope, usually resulting in the superior white male realising his previous mishaps and changing his ways.

However, this isn’t simply a comedy. It is a real-life snapshot of the experiences of black segregated women trying to make a career for themselves in a predominantly male and white workplace, in a decade where the USA were completely against their success. I am not saying that women should not be strong and stick up for themselves, but I believe that this comedic interaction between Johnson and Harrison is neither realistic nor necessary. The scene made the struggles of the people that these tales were based on more trivial, as if implying that they could simply ask for what they wanted, and they would get it.

To my eyes, it seemed as if the acceptability of the outspoken nature of the African American women was included in order to give the audience a decreased impression of segregating and discrimination, perhaps to make them feel less uncomfortable.

Although, there was one interaction between Vaughn and Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), a supervisor of a white group of women, which I believed to perfectly sum up the problem with society failing to acknowledge its prejudice. Mitchell tells Vaughn that, despite what she might think, that she has nothing against her, Vaughn’s response being ‘I know you probably believe that’.

In one exchange the failure of white people to acknowledge their ingrained discrimination towards black people is highlighted, and can be reverberated on to our society now, as people try to exclaim that ‘all lives matter’ when confronted with the idea that ‘black lives matter’ too.

Whilst I do take issue with some aspects of the film such as the aforementioned trivialisation of discrimination, I cannot take away from the excellence of the performance of the actors in their attempt to give a honesty portrayal of the real life experiences of those who have worked at NASA, and therefore I would rate this film as a must-watch for 2017.

Madeleine Finch

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Media courtesy of Fox Movies, Bustle, The Huffington Post

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