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11 January 2017

"I'm a Negro Woman; I'm Not Going To Entertain the Impossible" — Hidden Figures Review

Contrary to the clues, which seemed to point towards Pablo Larraín's Jackie, Monday night's Odeon Screen Unseen screening was Hidden Figures, a film about three black women who worked as 'computers' at NASA during the Space Race. I read Margot Lee Shetterly's excellent book of the same name towards the end of last year and was looking forward to seeing such a fascinating and important story being brought to the big screen, but although entertaining and with good performances from the female leads, the Theodore Melfi's film was rather underwhelming.

The film opens in the early days of JFK's presidency. When the world learns that the Russians have put a man into space, the pressure is on Al Harrison (a composite of three NASA Langley directors, played by Kevin Costner) to follow suit and surpass Russia's achievements.

Katherine Goble Jackson (Taraji P. Henson) is a brilliant mathematician working in the computing room until she is invited to join Harrison's Space Task Group as a computer, as the team works on the Mercury programme to put John Glenn (Glenn Powell) into space. Katherine enjoys the work and is good at it, often impressing Harrison, but is stymied by the discrimination she faces from her white and (predominantly) male co-workers. She has to run a quarter-mile to reach a bathroom for African Americans and her colleagues won't even drink from the same coffee pot as her. Nor is she allowed to put her name to reports on which she has done most of the work.

Meanwhile, her friend and colleague Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) struggles to obtain a formal promotion to be the supervisor of the computing department — a role she is already doing. When faced with the arrival of an 'International Business Machine' in the department, knows that she and her team must become programming experts if they are to avoid becoming redundant following the automation of the computing role. Then there is Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), who shows talent in engineering but who cannot become an engineer until she has taken a course at a school that only accepts white students.

Despite being inspired by the lives of three brilliant women who made hugely important contribution at NASA to computing, mathematics, physics, engineering and programming, it is unfortunate, then, that Hidden Figures isn't more inspiring. The performances were good — Spencer was as compelling as usual and Henson, in a quieter role, was also very watchable — but the film didn't seem to know which story to tell so it told them all: women in science, race relations in the 1960s, the Russian space race, and so on. And, of course, there had to be a romance sub-plot. The script seemed hackneyed and just rather ordinary — Powell's John Glenn was particularly grating (maybe that was intentional), but the dialogue felt clunky at times, despite the best efforts of the actors.

At 2h07, the film also ran slightly too long, and the pacing was a little off: it took a while to get going and the majority of the dramatic tension was crammed into the final few scenes. That said, Hidden Figures is an easy-going and entertaining, if unmemorable, film and, if you don't think you'll get around to reading Shetterly's book, I would recommend the movie. However, if you want to know the real story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, check out the book as well (or instead).

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