Sunday, 26 February 2017

Norfolkbookworm at the Movies: Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures (film and book)

Here's something you don't often hear the Norfolkbookworm say - the movie was as good as the book!

From reading past entries on this blog it is pretty obvious that I have an interest in reading biographies/autobiographies and that I am fascinated with space travel. Here the two passions collide and for once everyone wins.

The book by Margot Lee Shetterly is a great read, it covers the lives of many of the people involved in the early era of manned (and it was only men at this time) space flight but this time from the rarely covered point of view of the backroom women. In addition to this these women were black and living in a segregated America in a highly segregated/racist state.

The book covers their lives from childhood through their fights for education and then into their wartime careers where colour of skin temporarily mattered less than winning. After the war these women - incredible engineers and mathematicians continued to work for NACA/NASA and were an integral part of the space program.

I've read a lot of books about this era and I'd never heard of them so they really were hidden figures. I enjoyed the book but found it a little chaotic in style, however it covered so much time and so many people that I was worried how a film could ever be made from it.

The film sensibly narrowed its focus to tell the story of just three women and tightened the time frame to a taut two years or so.  This lead to a fast paced, tense story with real heart.  It also retained most of its accuracy and I do feel that if you just saw the film you would get a pretty fair idea of what the space program and NASA were like at this time. Apart from the amalgamation of NASA characters in to one or two leads the space history itself was spot on too if occasionally played a little too much towards dramatic crescendos.

I had two issues with the film, while I didn't expect the actors playing the Mercury Seven astronauts to look exactly like their real life characters the wrong hair cuts, especially on John Glenn really annoyed me.

The second issue is a little more nuanced - in no scenes where the actors depicted as smoking, and I really do think that in those offices where people were frantically trying to solve problems to safely send men in to space there would have been a *lot* of smoking taking place. Even in the climactic scenes of the film no one lights up in Mission Control and I know that is inaccurate from NASA images of the time!  Further investigation into this by Mr Norfolkbookworm gave the answer - if there had been accurate portrayals of smoking in the film then the cinema rating would have been higher and the distributors rightly wanted as many people to see this as possible! Full details on this here.

My final thoughts are a little more controversial, and point the finger at an American Hero somewhat:

In this film (and book) John Glenn is portrayed as the Mercury Astronaut who is the most accepting of the black women's roles. In the film his trust in Katherine Johnson is so great that he won't fly without her working a mathematical problem.
Yet... I've also read a lot of books about the Mercury 13 - the women who also went through the same training as Glenn et. al. (and performed better on many of the tests) - and it was Glenn's word that got their training scrapped and the idea of women in space, via NASA, postponed until 1983 - 21 years.

Since learning this I've always felt very ambivalent about Glenn's status as 'all American hero' but I guess that this just shows that no one is as good as they are portrayed and at least he wasn't a racist as well as sexist.

Digressions over - Hidden Figures is nominated for 3 Oscar awards this weekend, including Best Picture, and I would love for it to win. It is a heartwarming film, based on a great book, that shows viewers that gender and colour of skin really shouldn't be a barrier to doing what you love and being successful in it. #ThisGirlCan

Edited to add - Mr Norfolkbookworm has just let me know that his mum was also a computer, just like the women in Hidden Figures, in the UK and Switzerland - including on this project

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