Hidden Figures takes place in the early 1960s, at NASA in Virginia near Washington, D.C. This is during the Space Race. Early in the film, the Soviets beat the Americans by sending the first man into space. The Americans soon send their own astronaut into space, but the film focuses not on that flight, but on the flight not long after that when John Glenn became the first person to orbit Earth.
The movie tells the story of three African American women mathematicians who played key roles in the space program during that time period. It is a story of their overcoming blatant racism and disrespect through perseverance and just the fact that their intellect and ability to do their jobs made them indispensable. (There’s sexism too, but I’d say the racism was several times more severe—there were women supervisors, women didn’t have to use separate drinking fountains, etc.).
You know, I routinely mention in these pieces my pet peeve that “true story” movies incorporate elements that simply aren’t true. Usually I just accept it, even if I don’t like it, with an attitude of “Well, that’s the convention that has become accepted for movies.” Less often I rail against the practice. This movie deserves railing against.
When I read up on a supposedly nonfiction movie after the fact, of course there are always at least some differences from what really happened, but sometimes the differences are fairly minor and thus more tolerable. Like if someone communicated three points in three separate conversations to another person, the movie might convey them all in one conversation instead. Or a minor character might be a composite of multiple people. Or, heck, someone who was six foot two might be played by a five foot eleven actor. That kind of thing I can live with, as it constitutes minimal if any deviation from the facts that matter most in the story.
But then other movies turn out to be vastly different from the actual events they supposedly depict. Hidden Figures is far toward this—more objectionable—end of the scale.
It’s not a “true story.” I wouldn’t even describe it as “based on a true story.” I’d maybe let it get away with “inspired by a true story.”
Let’s say it’s somewhere between “inspired by a true story” and “fiction.”
Almost all of the most dramatic scenes, the scenes that will generate the most outrage, inspiration, and other emotions in viewers, are either completely made up or altered substantially from anything that actually happened.
The racism in the movie, as I say, is blatant. The three women protagonists are treated as obviously inferior, and are routinely insulted and discriminated against in various ways. They are all very conscious of the unjust way they are treated, very indignant about it, and very defiant in how they respond to it.
The reality? Well, one of the three women claims that she for the most part wasn’t conscious of anything like that, that as far as she remembers, everyone took their jobs very seriously and just worked together and did what they had to do to get things done.
I don’t think that means there wasn’t any racism. But in all likelihood, the racism was far, far more subtle than is depicted in the movie. Subtle enough that if someone, including a victim of it, chose to ignore it they could do so.
But accurately portraying such much more minor or subtle discrimination wouldn’t serve the dramatic or political purposes of the filmmakers. Such a film wouldn’t hold an audience’s interest, wouldn’t inspire them, wouldn’t win any awards, and would lose money. Better, then, just to make stuff up.
One of the women is depicted as having to make a very long trek to a different building (I believe it’s mentioned that round trip takes her 40 minutes, even though she’s rushing), through all kinds of weather, just to be able to use the bathroom, since there were no “colored” bathrooms in the building for physicists, engineers, mathematicians, and other big shots where she was eventually allowed, grudgingly, to work. This isn’t just an isolated scene, but something that is shown multiple times in the film.
Evidently the facts were very different. First off, it was a different of the three women who briefly early in her employment walked to another building when she had to use the bathroom, and that was only because she didn’t know that there were in fact colored bathrooms in her building. Once she found that out, she no longer left the building to go to the bathroom.
Meanwhile, the woman it is depicted as having happened to simply used the white bathrooms all along without incident. Someone finally complained about it years into her employment, but the powers-that-be ignored the complaint, as did she, so she was never pressured to abide by the bathroom segregation tradition.
To have an unenforced requirement to use a different bathroom because of your race is not unobjectionable. It’s insulting and it’s wrong and it should be changed, just as people have fought to have anti-gay sex laws changed even when they are rarely if ever enforced. Such laws and customs are a symbolic means of telling people there is something wrong with them or inferior about them, whether you then punish them or not.
But that level of racism is not enough for Hollywood drama. Indeed, even lying and depicting an unenforced rule as an enforced rule isn’t enough. Instead they have to lie further and make it an enforced rule that can only be obeyed by a daily half run/half walk hike in high heels through a torrential downpour to a building nearly a mile away.
Then the phoniness of that leads to multiple other phony scenes. The character in question is eventually confronted by her supervisor in front of everyone else in the workplace about why she is away from her desk for so long one or more times every day, and she responds with an impassioned, defiant speech to all present wherein she reveals why she has to leave and how dehumanizing it is. Never happened.
The supervisor then heroically takes a sledgehammer to the sign on the bathroom in the building designating it for whites only and destroys it, to show what enlightened whites like him will do when proud blacks stand up for themselves and call out racism. Never happened.
One of the women is depicted as needing to take a night class for an advanced degree that is only offered in the area at a white school. She decides to take the bold step of seeking a court order to allow her to take the class in spite of her race. She does extensive research into both the legal issues involved and biographical information about the judge who will hear the case. In court she makes a dramatic speech arguing for her court order in a way that makes use of facts about the judge’s own life to encourage him to go out on a limb and do the right thing.
Never happened. There was no speech, no courtroom, no judge. In real life, she requested an exception from the city and was granted it.
Again, it’s unjust that a black person has to request an “exception” to do something that a white person is allowed to do as a matter of course, but evidently it’s not a photogenic enough injustice for a movie, so something fictional was inserted instead.
There are numerous other untruths in Hidden Figures, some more significant than others.
So does this matter? OK, you might say, Hidden Figures is even more fictionalized than most such mainstream “true story” movies. But is it objectionable that it is so fictionalized?
I know I’m in the minority on this (about movies in general, not just about Hidden Figures), but I still maintain that it is. I’ll give you three reasons.
First, let’s think about racism on a scale from 1 to 10. At the top, a 10 would be someone who is ideally non-racist, completely colorblind, has no conscious or unconscious bias when it comes to race, etc. At the bottom a 1 would be the most vicious, violent, horrible, Klan-level racist. If NASA and its personnel during the historical period in question were at about, say, a level 7, and you make a movie telling the world that they were at a level 4, you are slandering them. You are directing a false accusation at certain real people and real institutions.
Second, when you exaggerate racism in a case like this in order to get a rise out of people, you are pandering to, and reinforcing, the notion that racism, and other “isms” like it, are really only reprehensible when they are blatant and extreme.
I mean, maybe the filmmakers figured that it was politically useful to fudge the truth because then people would react, “Wow, racism is terrible! We better be more sensitive to even the most subtle forms of it that remain.” I think it’s at least as likely, though, that people will react, “Wow, racism was terrible back then! Thankfully we don’t do things like make black people walk 40 minutes in the rain to go to the bathroom anymore. Back then there were real injustices, but since things like we see in the movie don’t happen anymore, it’s clear that battle has been fought and won and we can move on.”
Third, truth in and of itself has some value. Even if lying about what happened at NASA were politically effective—and I’m not convinced it is—you’d still have to give some independent moral weight to the fact that it’s, you know, lying, in order to assess if it’s justified or not.
This is a very popular movie that millions of people have seen and will see. If you ask people about racist practices in the early ’60s, especially at NASA specifically, of the few who have an opinion about it at all the vast majority will now mischaracterize it, and they’ll have those false beliefs because of this movie. There’s something wrong about that.
By the way, though I hope this is obvious, I’m not saying that there has never been racism as blatant and unjust as what we see in the movie. Slavery, lynchings and all kinds of other manifestations of racism were not only as evil as anything in Hidden Figures but more so. What I’m saying is that the racism experienced by these three individuals at NASA during this historical period—that is, the specific individuals, agency, and time that these folks chose to make an allegedly nonfiction movie about—was evidently significantly less extreme than is depicted here.
A couple of related points. When I watched the film, before I ever looked into what was and wasn’t falsified, there were multiple scenes that set off my baloney detector insofar as they seemed just too conveniently dramatic, too Hollywood, to be credible. It may be because I watch primarily independent and foreign films, but a lot of mainstream movie conventions that probably seem completely natural to most people don’t ring true to me.
Occasionally I’m surprised. There are times I’ll think a film probably fictionalized something, and then I’ll research it later and find out that that unlikely thing, or something reasonably close to it, really did happen. In those cases my opinion of the movie goes up. But with Hidden Figures, it turns out the scenes that seemed least plausible seemed that way for good reason.
Also, I was bothered by the way Hidden Figures succumbed to the usual political oversimplification and fudging that Bertrand Russell (and I’m sure others before him) identified long ago: “Those who are not trained in logic are prone to inferences that have no validity. For example, if one class or nation is oppressed by another, and you think this oppression ought to cease, they will expect you to regard the oppressed class or nation as possessed of superior virtue.”
The three protagonists, and the other African American characters in the movie, are intelligent, proud, hard-working, strong, high in self-esteem, and willing to stand up for themselves in the face of injustice. No matter how they are treated, they never treat others disrespectfully, never resort to violence, and never complain about anything it is not justified to complain about.
You’d never know that in real life oppression more often makes people worse instead of better. Treat people like shit due to something irrelevant like the color of their skin and they become anywhere from slightly to substantially more likely than the general population to suffer from low self-esteem, commit crimes, turn on each other, abuse alcohol and drugs, collaborate with their oppressors, etc. As a rule of thumb, oppression damages people; it doesn’t make them saints.
By the way, a movie can be honest about that without taking the side of the conservatives and racists. Take Moonlight, in my opinion one of the two or three best, most powerful, movies I’ve seen in recent years. In that film, the members of the oppressed group (because the U.S. is still a racist society, albeit far less than for much of its history) are three-dimensional human beings with the full panoply of virtues and vices, but if anything are disproportionately likely to immerse themselves in crime and drugs and to victimize each other.
Granted, the women of Hidden Figures—in real life, not just in the movie—rose above the oppression of their society to develop into highly impressive people who achieved great things against the odds. I’m certainly not saying there’s something wrong with depicting that in a movie, that movies should only show the numerically more common, not extraordinary, people who are more damaged by racism and prevented from developing and achieving. To pretend that the protagonists of Hidden Figures succumbed to oppression in that way would be untrue, but so is pretending that they were flawless heroes.
All that being said, there’s a lot to like about Hidden Figures. Even if some of the more extreme scenes didn’t feel credible to me, there were times I got caught up in the emotion of the film. Even if the specific types and degree of racism and sexism that the protagonists experience is significantly fictionalized, they still had to overcome racism and sexism to achieve what they did, and others at other times and places certainly had to deal with the more extreme oppression we see in the movie—and a lot worse—and people need to know that, to be reminded of that.
I’ve only spoken about the social and political aspects of the film—the racism and such—but the science, the mathematics, and the whole Space Race context are at times quite interesting as well. Even if certain elements of that too are fictionalized for dramatic purposes, it’s still striking what an astronaut like John Glenn (and all the people who made his mission possible) did back then.
Not only was there significant uncertainty over whether he would survive the attempt to orbit the Earth, but one thing I hadn’t really thought about in connection with the early astronauts is just how constrictive spacesuits and space capsules were. Maybe it’s not that much worse than Lindbergh flying across the Atlantic, or early pilots stuck in tiny cockpits for extended periods, and, yeah, it’s not (quite) as small an area as being in a coffin, but he was packed in there pretty tight for five hours. We’re not talking the Starship Enterprise here, with folks leisurely strolling around a roomy spaceship. If you had even a touch of claustrophobia, astronaut was not a good career choice back then.
If you treat Hidden Figures as a work of fiction, it’s as entertaining—not to mention inspiring and thought-provoking—or more so than the average movie. Leave aside my misgivings about how falsified it is and I’d say it’s clearly worthy of a recommendation. If you don’t leave those aside, then it’s borderline.