Thursday, October 25, 2018

How the Figures in “Hidden Figures” Came To Life

In 2016, Hidden Figures was a surprise box office hit. This story of three smart black women who contributed mightily to NASA’s early triumphs while battling segregation at Virginia’s Langley Research Center proved so irresistible that the film was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. There were also nominations for co-star Octavia Spencer and for screenwriters Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, who had adapted historian Margot Lee Shetterly’s 2016 book of the same name. The writers didn’t win their Oscar (that honor went to Barry Jenkins for Moonlight). But they were certainly deserving. Now that I’ve read Shetterly’s book, I realize that this screenplay is a textbook example of how to turn a serious work of history into a living, breathing film.

Not that I have any complaints about Shetterly’s considerable achievement. Her book, subtitled The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, is a serious chronicle, one that covers segregation in Hampton, Virginia from World War II onward, while also providing a full account of the changing workplace at Langley. At the same time, it introduces some fascinating women who bucked racial prejudice and social conditioning to succeed as “computers,” dedicating their mathematical skills to the Langley engineers’ high-level projects, though expecting little in the way of personal reward. Because Shetterly is revealing a slice of history that previously was scarcely known, she also goes far afield, covering (for instance) the challenges faced by black male engineers who sought work at Langley as well as what happened to the first black candidate to join the astronaut corps.

But the screenwriters know that history lessons don’t always make for good cinema. A quick glance at their screenplay reveals how, from the start, they make sure that Shetterly’s three main “hidden figures” are front and center. Without being untrue to the basic personalities of Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, and Mary Jackson (as revealed in Shetterly’s intense researched book), the screenwriters find colorful ways to dramatize the challenges faced by each woman.

With three strong actresses—Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, and Jannelle Monáe—in the central roles, each must be given something vivid to do. The film kicks off with the trio carpooling to Langley, only to face a broken-down engine and the attentions of a skeptical white policeman. Monáe, as the spirited Mary Jackson, boldly sasses the cop, while the super-competent Spencer (as Vaughan) coaxes the car back into service. It’s a clever intro to the three, though Shetterly’s book mentions that the real Vaughan never learned to drive.

Shetterly also notes how the “colored” computers at Langley struggled to find restrooms they were permitted to use. In the screenplay this becomes a sequence—both hilarious and poignant—in which Henson (as the redoubtable Johnson) races against a deadline to finish the stack of calculations to which she’s been assigned while also desperately seeking a place to answer nature’s call. The sequence ends dramatically with her new boss, played by Kevin Costner, destroying the sign that had made the nearby ladies’ room exclusive to white employees.

The script also adds a few snippy villains (played by Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst) for our heroines to butt their heads against. And the climactic contribution of Katharine Johnson to John Glenn’s Apollo mission is played out for all it’s worth. Yes, Glenn did actually say he’d trust Johnson’s calculations before he’d trust a computer, but the detour he makes on the tarmac to shake the hands of the black computers is one more lovely fiction that adds to the power of this film.

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