Film review: Hidden Figures takes liberties with real life facts

Hidden Figures is engaging, entertaining and enlightening – but the screenplay's fast and loose approach to historical fact risks blunting some of the movie's eye-opening, emotional force.

Taraji P Henson and Janelle Monáe in Hidden Figures. Hopper Stone
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Rob Garratt

Hidden Figures

Director: Theodore Melfi

Stars: Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst

Three stars

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 feel-good 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 well-intentioned cause.