Hidden truths?

Image copyright Levantine Films

Hidden Figures (1 ¾ stars on 0-5 scale), about the racial struggles of three extraordinary women, has been both a critical and commercial success. Directed by Theodore Melfi and based on the nonfiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly, the film tells the story of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) and their amazing – and heretofore mostly forgotten – contributions to NASA in the early 1960s. Most viewers have embraced the movie because they rightfully admire the three women and their achievements, and believe the film sends a strong message about racial discrimination, prejudice and segregation, especially considering our recent political climate. Only trouble is, the story is largely false.

You’re probably saying to yourself: So what? It’s not a documentary. And that’s indeed one way to look at it. We don’t expect complete accuracy from narrative fiction, which often conflates or distorts non-essential details. But when arguably the main point of the film is to expose segregation and unjust discrimination, I believe it’s important to get the essential facts right.

The horror of racism and segregation is a worthy subject, and art should be commended for exposing injustice in all forms. But those aforementioned horrors need not be exaggerated or falsely reported, and that’s exactly what Hidden Figures does. And it should be called out for its errors lest we as a society become guilty of revisionist history. (Sure, it’s just a movie, but doesn’t the average moviegoer, sadly, end up taking it as fact?)

Specifically, a good chunk of the story focuses on segregation at the NASA facilities in Langley, Virginia, in the early 1960s. But no such segregation existed, according to multiple sources including Wikipedia and this excellent analysis. The NACA (the precursor to NASA) was indeed segregated, and the three central characters would have been subjected to that and to segregation in Virginia as a whole. And, admittedly, the film does accurately reflect the many racial and gender barriers these women faced throughout their entire lives. But by the time the events of the film occur (the first astronauts being sent into space), all Langley facilities had been integrated for at least three years. In addition, the two characters (played by Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst) who most strongly represent racism are invented, Kevin Costner’s character is a composite, and small details (such as when and how Johnson was married and when IBM computers arrived at NASA) are distorted.

Most astonishingly, Johnson has said, “I didn’t feel the segregation at NASA, because everybody there was doing research. … You had a mission, and you worked on it, and it was important to you to do your job … and play bridge at lunch. I didn’t feel any segregation. I knew it was there, but I didn’t feel it.”

In addition to factual errors, the movie suffers from plain, old filmmaking problems too. Over-the-top performances (except for Spencer and Costner), tonal errors, obtrusive songs and mediocre writing rob it of emotional impact and tension. In short, it plays like a crowd-pleaser, not an Oscar contender. So I suggest watching Loving, another 2016 film, instead. It also addresses amazing real-life characters who conquered racial prejudice and segregation in 1960s Virginia, but it does so with subtlety and relative accuracy.

Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson had amazing stories to tell. It’s too bad this film wasn’t able to tell them.

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