Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Movie Review: Hidden Figures (2017)

Hidden Figures tells the story of three women who made extraordinary contributions to the space race during the Cold War. In consistently overcoming putdowns and setbacks with grace and dignity, they become pioneers: Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) becomes the first black woman engineer; Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) becomes one of the first IBM coders at NASA; and Katherine Johnson (Cookie Lyon Taraji P. Henson) gets herself into "the room where it happens," as it were, through sheer talent and an unrelenting commitment to doing the best work possible. The film celebrates the women's friendship and accomplishments, and illuminates worthy new heroes.

How does it compare to the book? The film is gentle, even light in its retelling of the recent past. The book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly is outstanding for its affectionate descriptions of Virginia's role in nurturing NACA; the author's blunt portrayal of racism, sexism, and segregation; and her reverence for the intellect, work ethic, and endurance of the women "computers" chronicled. By contrast, the movie shows the darker tendencies of society only through numerous awkward and tense moments as well as sharp one-liners. The film version of Hidden Figures isn't as methodical or analytical as the novel in reminding us how deeply embedded the racial divides were back in the day, relying instead on showing the many small humiliations suffered by its main characters to communicate how institutionalized racism held back an entire people (c.f. having to run 40 minutes to use the "colored bathroom.") That said, the movie is plenty dramatic when those barriers are dismantled (c.f. scene with Kevin Costner and sledgehammer). While the movie takes plenty of liberties with the source material, it treats the titular hidden figures with respect and presents them as keenly aware of how their successes ripple throughout their community.

Why "computers"? You see, my child, from days of long ago, from uncharted regions of the universe, comes a legend. The legend of...people doing complex mathematical calculations by hand! Before Apple compressed computers into that thing that's now in your pocket/hand, "computers" meant people who computed. For example, in the movie, when NASA had to figure out the go/no-go parameters of John Glenn's return trip from orbit, here comes the trope of the glasses-wearing nerd at the chalkboard -- only this time it's COOKIE LYON!!!

Source: PopSugar

For more on women computers, I think there's a section in Simon Singh's Big Bang about the Harvard Computers who worked on astronomical data in the late19th/early 20th century. Wikipedia also has an entry.

Who had the best one-liners/comebacks? While Monae played Mary Jackson as deliciously shameless and undaunted, often having to be restrained by her friends, the prize goes to Spencer's Dorothy Vaughn. Here are a couple of highlights:

Son: Did you just steal that library book?
Dorothy: I pay taxes!

Kristen Dunst (unsupportive manager): No matter what you may think, I don't have anything against y'all.
Dorothy: I know. I know you probably believe that.

She read her. REEEEAAAAAD.

So should I watch it? Yes, of course! This movie knows what it wants to do -- showcase the quiet heroism of its talented trio -- and does it with plenty of heart, laughs, and a sweet soundtrack. Best of all, it's comparable to the book in its presentation of math as a powerful tool: for the country, for the professional and personal lives of the heroines, and for collective scientific advancement. Hurray, math, truly the dominion of hidden figures!

TL;DR: A feel-good celebration of fierce mathematicians!


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