Posted Wednesday afternoon, February 22, 2017.
“The Girl” at work: Members of NASA's Space Task Force, led by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner, in glasses, standing center) and head mathematician Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons, in shirtsleeves, seated just to the left of Costner) look on as mathematician Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson, right) prepares to tackle a problem no one else in the room knows how to begin to solve in a scene from Academy Award for Best Picture nominee Hidden Figures.
I haven’t seen a single episode of Empire. I only know what I know of Taraji P. Henson’s portrayal of the scheming, ambitious, ruthless Cookie Lyon from what I’ve seen in commercials and heard from fans. But going by the little I know, I’m guessing adorable isn’t the first word you’d choose to describe her.
In Hidden Figures, Henson is flat-out adorable as NASA mathematician Katherine G. Johnson, whose work as member of the Space Task Force at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia in the 1950s and early 60s helped put the first Mercury astronauts into space and, more critically, brought them home again. John Glenn was so impressed by her that he wouldn’t give the go-ahead for his mission until “the girl” had double-checked the math done by the lab’s IBM mainframe.
Yep. It’s true. He did refer to her as “the girl”. Because she was the girl. The girl in the task force. (See my favorite image from the film.) There’s something condescending in calling a forty-four year old woman a girl, but it was probably used affectionately and kiddingly. That was the times. The astronauts were known at NASA and in the press as the boys. Gordon Cooper and Gus Grissom were the youngest astronauts and in 1961 they were both thirty-four. Glenn was the oldest astronaut at forty.
Of course, it’s still sexist. It emphasizes the gender divide. Boys and girls stay on their own sides of the playground. There are boy games and there are girl games. There are boy toys and there are girl toys. Boy toys include rocket ships. Girl games do not include physics and higher mathematics. They work together only under certain circumstances with boys always the bosses. This was the Mad Men era and boys and girls played together for one reason with the rules set by the boys. Glenn may not have had any of that in mind, especially not the last part. He was a Boy Scout and, devoted to his wife Annie as he was, probably didn’t think like Don Draper or the other astronauts, for that matter, who, if Tom Wolfe was telling the truth in The Right Stuff (Not a given.) thought a lot like Don Draper. Still, it’s there.
And it’s hard not to hear a touch of racism in it too, although I doubt Glenn intended it.
But however the word was charged and whatever Glenn intended by it---and it might just have been that he knew Johnson by reputation and not by name---what it is succinct summation of what Johnson faced and what she had to overcome. And in the movie, that’s what it signifies. It’s part of a climactic moment of triumph for Johnson. Some of the white men in the task force may still not be affording her the respect she’s earned, but NASA itself and the country in the person of John Glenn are depending on “the girl.”
What it also is, however, is an accurate description of the essence of Johnson’s character as Henson plays her.
Although Johnson’s the widowed mother of three daughters and a career woman who’s been out in the world on her own since she was nineteen, there’s a decidedly girlish quality to her demeanor and her personality. Henson never lets us forget the determined and confident professional, but there’s a part of her that’s still the junior high school A student just discovering her own mathematical genius and through that the key to how the universe works.
Full-fledged grown-up that she is, when she sets to work doing the math, her eyes widen in wonder at her own genius and the genius of nature. She’s amazed at what she’s able to do and more at amazed at what her ability reveals. Which isn’t to say, Henson makes Johnson a prodigy. This is her work, it’s hard work, and she works hard at it. She’s diligent, responsible, and persevering, but there’s always something of that A student’s diligence, responsibility, and perseverance. She’s determined to earn the best grades. Not to show off or to show anybody up. But because when you’re blessed with a talent, that’s what you’re supposed to do.
So Henson is as adorable as a seventh grader when she wrinkles her nose to settle her glasses before she sets to work and in the slightly too eager way she raises her hand to answer a question she knows the answer to and knows she knows it ahead of everyone else in the room and in the way she hugs her books and binders to her chest and in the primness and propriety with which she deals with the advances of the man who will become her second husband as he gets off on exactly the wrong foot with her. But she’s most adorable in the way she runs in her high heels across the Langley campus as she makes her daily mad dash to the one “Colored” women’s bathroom and back. Henson has come up with one of the great comic runs in recent movie history, as funny as George Clooney’s one-shoed hop down the hill in The Descendants and almost as physically brilliant as Ralph Fiennes’ many cartoon figure come to life mad dashes in The Grand Budapest Hotel.
The difference is Clooney and Fiennes were playing fictional characters. Johnson, of course, was real, but that run isn’t.
I don’t mean that Johnson didn’t run like Henson has her running. I wouldn’t know. I mean that those mad dashes didn’t happen.
Not routinely. Not under those circumstances. Not at that particular time.
It’s not exactly made up. But it’s not strictly true.
And that’s the case with much that happens in Hidden Figures. A lot isn’t strictly true.
Which doesn’t stop it from being true to life and to history.
Director Ted Melfi, who co-wrote the screenplay with Allison Schroeder, faced a challenge as he Schroeder set out to adapt the book by Margot Lee Shetterly. Many of the events, circumstances, and situations in the lives of the three main characters---Johnson and her fellow mathematicians Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson---and in the development of the space program took place over the course of over twenty-years.
To tell a more tightly-knit story, Melfi and Schroeder decided to set things within some indeterminate point in late 1960 or early 1961 and February 22, 1962, when Glenn's capsule splashed down in the Caribbean in the target area determined by Johnson's math, and by that time a number of what are important plot points in the movie had already taken place, some five, ten, and even fifteen years before.
Vaughn had already succeeded in her frustrating struggle to be given the title and salary appropriate to the supervisory job Langley had her doing unofficially. Johnson had already had papers published under her name. Jackson, NASA’s first black female engineer and in the 1950s perhaps the only black female aeronautical engineer in the entire field, had completed the course work required for her promotion from mathematician to engineer and was already at work in the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, “a 60,000 horsepower wind tunnel capable of blasting models with winds approaching twice the speed of sound.the wind tunnel.” (She co-authored her first report, “Effects of Nose Angle and Mach Number on Transition on Cones at Supersonic Speeds,” in 1958, the year she became an engineer.)
Meanwhile, in the workings of NASA at large, test launches weren't routinely resulting in boosters blowing up moments after liftoff, Cape Canaveral had become the site for mission control for all the Mercury space flights in 1960, the IBM mainframe, practically a comic character in itself in the movie, was an addition to the electronic computers that had been in use at Langley since the early 50s, and the West Area Computers Unit where the African American female computers worked had ceased to exist in all but name as the human computer workforce had been integrated, racially and sexually, with many of its former staff dispersed to new departments and assignments, which means that one of the most stirring images in the movie, the march of the black women computers out of West Computing and over to their new offices near the IBM mainframe where they would take on new jobs as programmers, never happened.
Except that it did.
Many times over, in many different places, involving many, many, many other women.
The march is symbolic of all the marches.
It places the story of Hidden Figures within the larger story of the Civil Rights movement.
There are many such symbolic moments in Hidden Figures.
In order to keep things within their timeframe---and to keep the movie from being four hours long; as it is, Hidden Figures is a compact two hours and seven minutes---Melfi and Schroeder had to compress events, rearrange chronologies, and invent characters, either out of thin air or by composite, with the usual disappointing result, for me, when I look things up later and discover that some of my favorite characters either didn’t exist or if they did, did under different names without having done or said what the movie has them doing and saying. (To be clear, Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson aren’t invented and they did pretty much everything the movie has them doing, just not necessarily, as I said, at the time and under the exact circumstances Melfi and Schroeder have them doing it.) To fill in the gaps and connect plot points, Melfi and Schroeder don’t over-rely on expositional speeches, flashbacks, and film clips. Their main narrative strategy is to be symbolic. The question, then, isn’t whether this or that happened as depicted. It’s whether the depictions contain and convey the essential truth of what did happen.
The next question is does that result in a well-told story?
And the third question, more for critics to answer, is what kind of story is getting told. Mel Gibson tells much of the story of conscientious objector Private Desmond Doss’s heroism symbolically and Hacksaw Ridge borders on allegory. Which was fine with me. Hidden Figures, however, is a much more realistic piece of realistic storytelling. Which is also fine with me.
Hidden Figures has none of the sententiousness weighs down many historical dramas. These things matter because the characters matter. Melfi’s approach is straight-forwardly observational. As far as he seems to be concerned, he’s simply telling the story of relatively ordinary people living their lives and doing their jobs. It just happens they are living through extraordinary times and doing extraordinary work.
Of course, it’s hard to accept characters as being relatively ordinary when they’re played by the likes of Henson, Octavia Spenser, and Janelle Monáe.
Henson is far more than just adorable as Johnson and her performance provides the movie its heart. But Johnson’s story is given drive and centrality by virtue of its being the most directly tied to the Space Race as it plays out in the movie. Vaughan’s and Jackson’s stories are more personal and so their parts of the movie rest more on the individual performances of Spencer and Monáe.
As Vaughan, Spencer is all eyes. In hers shines all the movie’s warmth, mischief, and sense of delight in life in general and in the professional and personal achievements of the main characters---the way her eyes light up as she teaches herself how to program to the mainframe and then flash when the computer refuses to cooperate earn Spencer her Best Supporting Actress Nomination as far as I’m concerned. But it’s the way they go cold when she’s confronted by the spokespersons for racism that’s most compelling. It’s a look that says, “I am not about to give you the satisfaction of causing me to lose my self-control and get myself in trouble, but do you hear yourself?”
As Jackson, Monáe provides the movie with most of its youthful energy and political fire. (The real Mary Jackson was forty in 1961. Monáe is thirty-one.) Johnson and Vaughn are caught up in the problems of the moment. Jackson is already two or three steps ahead of the moment, ready for the next fight even as she’s still settling the last one. This is in keeping with Jackson’s actual history. We don’t see in the movie, but in the next phase of her career with NASA she would become, as Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager, a feminist champion within the agency, on the scout for young women scientists, engineers, and mathematicians to recruit and promote. The fight we see her wage in the movie to advance her own career prefigures the fights she would help other women wage later on.
This is the second time I’ve seen Mahershala Ali, who plays Johnson’s awkward suitor then devoted husband National Guard Colonel Jim Johnson, steal a scene just by being in it. The first was in Luke Cage where he played the too too cool villain Cottonmouth. I haven’t seen Moonlight yet, but if he does the same in that, then I won’t mind if he takes the Best Supporting Actor Oscar from Jeff Bridges.
Kevin Costner plays Al Harrison, who seems to run all of NASA and parts of the military from his office at Langley. It’s what Oliver Mannion calls the Tom Hanks role, the lovably grumpy boss whose demandingness and irascibility you’d like to tell yourself not to take personally except that you know it’s expressive of a keen professional and personal judgment that you’ve either goofed up or are on your way to goofing up. Costner hasn’t specialized in playing intellectuals, but he makes Harrison’s superior intelligence plain. This is someone who is smarter and harder-working than anybody in just about any room he’s in. His genius is active, pragmatic, and self-critical and epitomizes everything that was best about the space program, which figures, since Harrison’s a composite of several men who headed Langley during Johnson and the others’ time there.
And Jim Parsons is simultaneously comically and sinisterly enigmatic---and very un-Sheldon-esque---as Paul Stafford, Johnson’s humorless stuffed shirt of a supervisor in the Task Force and her chief antagonist. Parsons never lets on if Stafford’s antagonism is due to racism, sexism, or professional vanity---Johnson’s brilliance rivals his own---or if it’s simply institutional and traditional: Johnson, just by being there, changes the way things get done. The very fact of her moves the cheese and he finds that not just upsetting but offensive. But what’s amusing in Parson’s deadpan performance is how he makes Stafford irritated by his own begrudging and growing respect for Johnson. He even sort of comes to like her, despite himself, and he cant bring himself to forgive her for that.
Dorothy Vaughan retired from NASA in 1971. She died in 2008 at the age of 98. Mary Jackson left NASA in 1985. She died in 2005, just shy of her eighty-fourth birthday. Katherine Johnson retired in 1986. She’s still here and will be celebrating her ninety-ninth birthday in August. In 2015 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
That’s Willie Mays sitting next to her. You probably recognize the tall galoot presenting her with her medal.
Photo by Kelvin Suddason, courtesy SHFWire.
Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi, screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, based on the book Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly. Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Kirsten Dunst, and Glen Powell. Rated PG. Still in theaters.