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Dramatic license

‘Hidden Figures’ is a well-intentioned embellishment

A pivotal scene in “Hidden Figures,” the new film based, in part, on the life of NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, finds Johnson’s boss, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), destroying a “coloreds only” bathroom sign on the NASA campus. Harrison’s moment is a fit of righteous indignation on behalf of Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), who, because of segregation policies, must walk a mile round-trip every day just to use the restroom.

That scene never actually happened in life; Johnson just started using the restroom of her choice. Of course, “based on a true story” always comes with the caveat of dramatization (director Theodore Melfi’s rationale) and, in this film in particular, the white savior who bravely aids minorities in breaking out of institutionalized shackles. Shit like this is one of the reasons I always take biopics with a grain of salt. Which, ironically, winds up setting a higher bar for suspension of disbelief than for films that are entirely made up.

In that regard, the artifice of “Hidden Figures” is apparent.

The film opens on Johnson as a child in the 1920s. Her parents and teachers discover that she’s a math prodigy, and the family uproots so that Johnson can attend a good school.

We meet her again as an adult in the early ‘50s, with her two best friends and colleagues: mathematician Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and aspiring engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). The three women break down on the road enroute to work at NASA as “colored computers.” An initially tense encounter with a local cop turns amiable when the cop realizes that these ladies are helping win the space race against the Russians.

Examples of institutional racism, both overt and subliminal, play out over and over again in “Hidden Figures.” Vaughn is refused the title of “supervisor” for her work, despite managing a highly-skilled team and training herself to become a FORTRAN coder. Jackson has to petition the court to be allowed into a white classroom so that she might become a valuable engineer. Johnson is forced to prove herself at every turn, in addition to that walk to the bathroom. Slowly but surely, the brilliance of these women earns the respect of even their most skeptical peers. The rest is written by history. They were integral to John Glenn becoming the first human to orbit the Earth.

Despite whatever artistic license “Hidden Figures” employs, it movingly dignifies the roles these women played in the advancement of space exploration. Breaking through not only a glass ceiling but a white one, before the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, it’s hard to overstate the continued relevance of this story today—when some people still think girls are not as good at science, women continue to be paid less than their male peers, and racial animus has been reignited as fears are stoked that maybe everything doesn’t belong to white people anymore.

Does it matter that Kevin Costner’s character didn’t really destroy the bathroom sign? Or that John Glenn didn’t really delay his historic orbital flight until Katherine Johnson double-checked the math? Maybe. But history sometimes needs a veneer of drama to emphasize the foolish reasoning of times that should not be repeated.

For more from Joe, read his top ten film of 2016.