By tak­ing lib­er­ties with the facts, film lets down its in­spi­ra­tional hero­ines

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Hid­den Fig­ures Di­rec­tor: Theodore Melfi Stars: Taraji P Hen­son, Oc­tavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Cost­ner, Kirsten Dunst Hid­den Fig­ures is en­gag­ing, en­ter­tain­ing and en­light­en­ing – but by play­ing fast and loose with his­tor­i­cal fact, it risks blunt­ing some of the story’s eye-open­ing emo­tional force.

This Oscar-nom­i­nated feel­good ensem­ble drama is al­ready the high­est-gross­ing film fronted by African-Amer­i­can ac­tresses, with an in­ter­na­tional haul of US$155mil­lion (Dh569 mil­lion) to date.

It tells the real-life story of three fe­male Nasa math­e­ma­ti­cians who played an un­der-ap­pre­ci­ated role in the space race. In Dorothy Vaughan (played by Oc­tavia Spencer), Mary Jack­son (Janelle Monáe) and, es­pe­cially, Kather­ine G John­son (Taraji P Hen­son), we have ideal, undi­luted role mod­els – tal­ented, con­sci­en­tious, vice-free fig­ures em­pow­ered but not em­bit­tered by their po­si­tions on the fringes of his­tory.

Based on Mar­got Lee Shet­terly’s non-fic­tion book of the same name, Hid­den Fig­ures in­tro­duces us to these in­spi­ra­tional women in 1961, work­ing in a seg­re­gated sec­tion la­belled “Black Com­put­ers”, en­coun­ter­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion that to­day, less than six decades later, seems unimag­in­able.

The film’s emo­tional peak comes when Space Task Group di­rec­tor Al Har­ri­son – charis­mat­i­cally played by Kevin Cost­ner – smashes a sym­bol of the in­sti­tu­tional racism. Yet the in­ci­dent never hap­pened, and the char­ac­ter is a fic­tion­alised com­pos­ite.

Em­ploy­ing dra­matic li­cence in this way is typ­i­cal of Hol­ly­wood – but, cru­cially, in this case events could not pos­si­bly have hap­pened that way. Har­ri­son’s “white saviour” out­burst comes af­ter re­al­is­ing John­son has been wast­ing valu­able com­put­ing time rush­ing be­tween the white and black sec­tions to use a seg­re­gated toi­let. Yet Nasa abol­ished seg­re­gated wings in 1958, and John­son says she used the un­la­belled “white” toi­lets all along, first by ac­ci­dent, later in de­fi­ance.

Her sud­den pro­mo­tion in the film to the Space Task Group – again pa­tro­n­is­ingly por­trayed as a white-saviour mo­ment – in 1961 is also a dis­tor­tion. In fact, she joined the team in 1958, af­ter five years with the Flight Re­search Divi­sion, and co-au­thored a re­port in 1960 (she is re­peat­edly de­nied the chance to do this in the movie).

Vaughan was in­deed the first black su­per­vi­sor at Nasa, as seen in the film, but took up the role 13 years ear­lier, in 1948. Sim­i­larly, Jack­son was Nasa’s first African-Amer­i­can fe­male engi­neer, as the film claims, but also achieved this ear­lier, in 1958.

These women de­serve to be cel­e­brated, but di­rec­tor Theodore Melfi has al­lowed heart to rule head.

Such fac­tual in­ac­cu­ra­cies do more harm than good – by em­bel­lish­ing in­jus­tice, you risk cre­at­ing easy fod­der for dark, re­ac­tionary forces to seize upon.

There was no need to ex­ag­ger­ate the evils of seg­re­ga­tion – and do­ing so threat­ens to cloud Hid­den Fig­ures’s wellinten­tioned cause.

Rob Gar­ratt

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