Visual depiction cannot do justice to intricacies of a complex story
by Alan Charlton
Photo Caption: Taraji Henson (centre) plays Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who calculates flight trajectories for NASA in the 2016 film Hidden Figures. The film focuses on the lives of three African-American women who worked for NASA. While Alan Charlton praises the film for offering a “fascinating” and “grim reminder” of what black women had to endure, he notes the adaptation was exaggerated in its presentation. (Courtesy 20th Century Fox)
Adapting a work of history to the movie screen can be a daunting task. Certainly this was the case with Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures.
The book is a detailed and discursive account of the role that several black women played in developing the aerospace industry in the 40 years during and after World War II.
It is more than an account of the contribution of a handful of talented women. The real intent of her book is to show how slowly the black people of the United States have been moving along the harsh road to equality with whites. This road was made even harder for the black women on whom she concentrates because they were also subjected to sexism as they started to excel in fields of engineering, mathematics and computers – areas which had till then been regarded as the enclave of men.
While the film version of Hidden Figures stays faithful to the spirit of the book, it should not be regarded as an accurate portrayal of the events depicted. The film focuses on three women in particular and gives only occasional hints of the many hundreds of women who in many ways heroically shared in their achievements.
The racism and sexism that they were subjected to is made dramatically present – sometimes too dramatically in that events are invented or exaggerated to bring home the point. In and of itself, all of this might be seen as totally negative, but the film does expose in compelling fashion a heretofore ignored and important part of black history in America. The film is fascinating in what it reveals and a grim reminder of what black women had to endure.
Perhaps the biggest problem in adapting Shetterley’s history is the very complexity of the story she tells. Multitudes of people appear, many only briefly. While the author does focus in large measure on a handful of those women, even in book form it is difficult to follow the flow of each of their lives as Shetterly jumps from one person’s story to another.
So it is with the film. In order to simplify things and to keep it to reasonable length, the film covers only the period of the space race which began after the Russians launched Sputnik. Even so, as the film deals with the achievement of three remarkable women, it is the reality that, while their lives did intersect, frequently the only thing that they really share is that all three of them worked for NASA, though in very different capacities.
As a result the film becomes disjointed as it tries to keep the audience abreast of various events (some factual, some exaggerated, some invented) in their careers and private lives. The result is a film which, for all the interest it generates, is one that is oddly dissatisfying.
This is not to say that the film is without merit. Far from it. The cast performs impeccably and the three actors who portray the principal characters do so with grace, dignity and conviction. Indeed, after the “Oscars So White” controversy of 2016, it is clear that the film offers an opportunity for the Academy to make up for last year’s omissions.
Add to this Moonlight, Fences and Lion (to be reviewed in my next column) and one can see that, at least for this year, people of colour must at least be in the running at this year’s Oscars.
Nor should one view this as a cynical attempt by the film industry to make reparations for its previous shortcomings; after all, these films were well into production before last year’s Oscars were announced. The fact that these films have leaped into prominence arises from the simple fact that they are films worthy of attention and all of them well worth seeing.
This is certainly true of Hidden Figures. It may garner no awards and, in some ways, as has been indicated, is a film whose shortcomings are obvious. Despite this, it is a film which offers an interesting reminder of a critical period in America’s history and a sad reminder of the racism and sexism, which, despite the advances made by women of colour are still present in society today.
For those who remember the events of Sputnik and John Glenn’s first journey into space, it will doubtless serve as a reminder of the tensions and excitement of those days; for those too young to remember, it should serve as a timely indication of where we were as a society (and not only in the States) and how far we have yet to go before people can truly say that all citizens enjoy real equality.