History that doesn't add up

Hidden Figures
Directed by Theodore Melfi
Written by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly
Rated PG, 127 minutes
3 stars

Hidden Figures tells a story so irresistible and with such winning performances that criticism of its form will seem churlish. This story of three black women who helped put a man on the moon has everything a feel-good hit needs: sassy and brainy ladies battling for their rights at a time when NASA made them use separate ‘colored’ toilets, stupid bosses who can’t see their mathematical talent, and some killer moments of triumph and vindication. You go girls!

The truth, as so often in movies ‘based on a true story’, is richer and more subtle than the movie allows. And ‘allows’ is the right word. Allison Schroeder’s script, based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction book, applies strict Hollywood logic, which says that anything that doesn’t fit just needs to be hit harder with the story-teller’s hammer.

I don’t underestimate the difficulty of telling a complex story of three different women, one of whom was a good bit older than the other two. Dorothy Vaughan joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, the forerunner to NASA) in 1943, in the first wave of black women recruited to work as ‘computers’. They were housed in the West Area Computing Unit, part of NACA’s large facility in Hampton, Virginia. This new unit was segregated. Vaughan became its supervisor in 1949 – the first black supervisor in the organisation.

Schroeder wants that detail but the timeline is a problem, since most of the story takes place in 1961. So she fudges Vaughan’s story, to bring it closer to the other two women. Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson were both around ten years younger; neither joined NACA till the early 1950’s, after Vaughan was already supervisor.

In the movie, these three are close friends. Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) is running West Area Computing but her white boss, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) says her request for supervisor has been denied. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) has not yet started the classes that will make her the first black female engineer at NASA (although in reality, she got there in 1958). And Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson) has not yet joined the Space Task Group, the glamour unit headed by the gruff Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), a composite character largely based on Robert Gilruth.

Katherine Johnson is a mathematical prodigy. She joins Harrison’s unit because they cannot find a white computer who can handle analytic geometry. She arrives in a large room full of white men in white shirts, who soon provide her with her own coffee pot marked ‘colored’. Harrison drives his team like dogs, trying to catch up to the Russians. Johnson must crunch truckloads of figures on paper, because the new IBM computer is not yet working. To relieve herself, she has a 40-minute haul to the only ‘colored’ ladies room on the campus. Costner makes a scene when he finds out. He bashes down the ‘colored’ toilet sign with a sledge-hammer, desegregating NASA in one giant leap for black womankind. This never happened, of course. When NACA became NASA in 1958, the same year that Johnson joined the Space Task Group, it desegregated all facilities at Hampton.

Why do we need these fictions? The story of these women is remarkable, and most of it happened between 1948 and 1958, so why set it in 1961, and create these big hero moments for the likes of Costner? I think it is because the film-makers want to get closer to the time when NASA actually put men into space – the romance of the Kennedy era – and provide some heroic white characters to make the film more palatable to white American audiences. John Glenn (Glen Powell) provides one of these when he is about to become the first American into orbit in 1962. He does not trust the IBM machines, so he asks for Mrs Johnson to check the machine’s calculations. At least in this case, the story is true.

Almost every one of the fudges makes the film more entertaining and less truthful. Don’t these women deserve better? They blazed a trail much earlier than we see here; they kept doing it much later than is shown here, although the end titles at least acknowledge that. I suspect that many of the film’s biggest moments never happened, or not the way they do here, which makes the movie almost worthless as history. When a film purports to be selling history, we’re entitled to ask where the history went, even if it offers a good time instead.