Putting the Race into Space Race.


As a child of the early 60s, the ‘Space Race’, as started by John F. Kennedy in his famous speech announcing that America would put a man on the moon before the decade was out, is something that is still inherently thrilling to me. As also illustrated in many films, for example “Pride“, and TV series, such as “Life on Mars”, the 60s and 70s were also a world away in social terms for where we find ourselves 50 years later. Looking back today at the casual racism and sexism of that time is quite shocking. Seeing some parents bringing their child into the cinema to see “Hidden Figures” it made me appreciate just how alien some of the scenes on the screen would be to a child. Why would Black people only be able to use a “colored bathroom”? Why would a black person in a room full of white people have to drink from their own coffee pot? Why would it be so strange for a woman to hold a senior position in the organisation?

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A woman in a man’s world.

This is the backdrop behind “Hidden Figures”. It’s NASA in 1962 and the race is on with the Russians to get the first person into orbit around the Earth. Getting the first person into space has already been lost after Yuri Gagarin’s Vostok 1 success. But the Americans are not only struggling with the rocketry, which has a nasty habit of exploding spectacularly on the launchpad. They are also struggling with the mathematics required to successfully place a craft into orbit and, crucially, allow it to re-enter the atmosphere without burning up: America needs a successful mission, and to see a pilot with ‘The Right Stuff’ descending to earth in a blazing crock-pot on live TV is not part of the planned PR exercise!

Friends letting it all hang out. Janelle Monáe, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer.

Enter three unexpected heroes in the form of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer, “The Help”, “Insurgent”) and May Jackson (Janelle Monáe, “Moonlight”). The three friends are all struggling in different ways at NASA’s Langley Research Center to be recognised in the system that – as black women – is severely biased against them. Central to the story is Johnson, a widowed mother of two, whose maths genius becomes key to unlocking the safe return of John Glenn. The secondary stories have Jackson having to go legal to get to be the first African American engineer in NASA (unbelievable!) and Vaughn, in probably the least dramatic storyline, struggling to be recognised as a supervisor in the supervisor job she is doing. 

“Based on a true story”. The original heroes of NASA.

Also co-starring is man-of-the-moment Mahershala Ali as Colonel Jim Johnson, Katherine’s potential new boyfriend, and Kevin Costner as Al Harrison the head of the Space Task Group. (NASA report that the film ‘simplifies’ the complex management chain actually in place with “Harrison’s” character being an amalgum but most aligned to Robert C. Gilruth). It’s great to see Costner back on the big screen again, and the character walks a fine line on the segregation argument: you feel the actions of the man are aligned with completing the mission rather than his own personal beliefs. Jim Parsons (“The Big Bang Theory”) also co-stars as Johnson’s spiky chauvinistic and racist supervisor as does Kirsten Dunst, in a similar role, as Vaughn’s supervisor.

Taraji P Henson and Mahershala Ali conciously coupling.

A key mention at this point to the score by Hans Zimmer which adds greatly to the emotion of the spaceflight scenes. However, more generally in the sound area – and as a postgraduate physicist – can I just remind film-makers YET AGAIN that there is NO sound in space, so adding effects to booster separations and “whooshings” of spacecraft as they go by is NOT required!  (You can’t imagine how much I cringe at these moments).

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Jim Parsons, Taraji P Henson and Kevin Costner ponder the inponderable.

This is ultimately a film about girl empowerment and black empowerment, so it is not surprising that all of the women in my life have gone gaga about this film. As somebody completely outside of that particular Venn diagram, I found the film to be a solid and respectful telling of a true story that should have been known a long time ago. Was it as gripping and exciting as “Apollo 13”?  No, not in my view. But as an educational missive aimed at that – presumably perplexed – young child in my screening, this is a timely reminder for the present political system as to how far the world has come in fifty years, and how we must NEVER retreat down that road again.

Fad Rating:  FFFF.