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Hidden Figures: Does historical accuracy matter?

When I first saw Hidden Figures, I thought it was pretty great. I still do. It is the uplifting-but-untold story of the African-American women at NASA who triumphed through adversity to help America win the space race. The three lead performances from Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae are really something: restrained as appropriate, forthright when necessary, likeable throughout. Katherine Johnson (Henson) is the central ‘figure’, but we see as each of these believable characters overcomes race and gender barriers through sheer force of will and determination. A generous sprinkle of sass doesn’t hurt either. So I got home, followed my curiosity and looked into the true story of Katherine Johnson and her peers. What I discovered had me feeling manipulated at first, then just a little confused.

These were undoubtedly talented and strong individuals. Katherine Johnson DID calculate NASA’s trajectories on countless pioneering missions, and astronaut John Glenn DID ask for her specifically to check the numbers. Dorothy Vaughan WAS the first black supervisor at NASA, and DID have the foresight to teach herself and others to code the new IBM. Mary Jackson WAS the first African-American female engineer at NASA, after petitioning to attend graduate classes alongside white students. Hidden figures they were, and figures whose lives deserve to be told. I don’t even have a problem with the fact that these accomplishments are presented as happening simultaneously in the film, when, in fact, Vaughan was supervisor long before Johnson was hired, workplace segregation was removed at NASA years before the film is set, and Jackson was promoted to engineer 5 years before John Glenn’s orbit (despite being implied after in the closing titles).

Screenwriters have the right and need to assemble their own narrative for purposes of drama and pacing, I respect that. What I don’t understand is why these circumstances could not have been shown in the manner that they existed. Katherine Johnson stated in retrospective interviews that she ‘didn’t feel any segregation’ at NASA and was treated ‘as a peer’ by her white colleagues. No ‘coloured’ coffee pot, no being mistaken for the janitor. A recurring sequence in the film, which is first depicted comically but becomes one of Johnson’s major hurdles, is her search for the nearest ‘coloured’ toilet which happens to be across campus. Didn’t happen. In reality, she used the nearest white bathroom for years, not realising that they were segregated. But, when confronted about it, she *just carried on* using it anyway and refused to enter the coloured toilets. Surely that is real empowerment!? She did not just suffer in silence until Kevin Costner’s white knight liberated her for the good of the American space mission.

Where should the line be drawn between an artist’s poetic license and the responsibility to respect the real lives on which the material is based? I am not going to pretend that I have the answers, and never would I presume to speak on behalf of the people who could rightfully be aggrieved by such creative choices. But there is something that I find very uncomfortable about creating or exaggerating an antagonist threat, especially when it’s something as inflammatory as racism. To me it says: ‘your stories aren’t worth telling without these added obstacles I’ve thrown in’. Is it appropriate for two white screenwriters to overstate the victimhood of these African-American women, rather than tell the historical story of how they were empowered from the get-go? It’s certainly murky waters.

Two of the management staff who stand out in their bigotry, played by Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst, are not based on real people, but are supposedly ‘composite characters created to represent certain racist and sexist attitudes that existed during the 1950s’. Filmmakers are unlikely to single out a real staff member and represent them as a screaming racist. But if such extremes weren’t vocal at NASA, creating a caricature surely only encourages people who would downplay the real-life successes of these women. If the narrative conflict becomes ‘protagonists versus prejudiced management’, not only does this unfairly place the power with the oppressors (to be dramatically won back), the audience could also be forgiven for thinking ‘oh, these women weren’t oppressed after all’ when they realise the big bad management figures weren’t so big or so bad in real life. The genuine opposition is the institution and the white-patriarchal systems on which it is based. In that respect, it is Mary Jackson’s story that is most revealing – there is no one directly standing in her way, but the system itself is stacked against her as she tries to earn an engineering degree. As astronaut John Glenn was propelled into space, these African-American women, too, were pioneers pushing into equally untrodden territory.

British director Paul Greengrass, known for his ‘true story’ films Captain Phillips (2013), United 93 (2006), and Bloody Sunday (2002), has spoken in the past about the creative process of adaptation and how he thinks historical accuracy should be approached. In defence of a single line of dialogue in United 93, which presents a real-life person in a negative way (he had no way of knowing what was said by any of the passengers), Greengrass explained that he considers it a different kind of truth. Although not historically truthful, he believes that it is faithful to what people might have said and emotions they might have gone through in their panic and desperation. Maybe, then, Hidden Figures holds some moral truth about what people in their situation are likely to have experienced. Perhaps the changes are not disingenuous to the heart of the story, but represent the women’s accomplishments in a way that is more digestible for a wider audience. If viewers can relate to the characters and/or it inspires positive change today, does it matter how far from the path it wanders?

Although everyone involved in the projects has persistently denied it, I think it no coincidence that the year after the #oscarssowhite outcry, four of the Best Picture nominees in 2017 focus on the lives of people of colour, compared to zero in 2016. Of course, lack of representation at industry awards is a symptom of the problem, rather than the cause. Viola Davis, on receiving her Emmy last year, said: ‘The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity’, ‘You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there’.  I am all for this kind of pressure on Hollywood. It helps to repel the tide of homogeneity in mainstream cinema, for a start. For the right or wrong reasons, studios and investors do fund ventures that gain free attention and publicity on the back of controversy. Indeed, I am very conscious of the temptation for filmmakers to play the race card to exploit such opportunities, a tactic which is particularly problematic when it comes to ‘true story’ films. Steps like these may have the short-term effect of appeasing the Hollywood liberal elite, but, in my opinion, can damage race relations in the long-term.

Did these women experience prejudice in 1960s America? Of course. Did they experience personal prejudice at NASA, to the extent that is depicted in this film? Not according to their own accounts.

A meta-analysis of recent films conducted by shows how frequently history is rewritten for the purposes of cinema. Hidden Figures scores a fairly respectable 72.6% accuracy, but that pales in comparison to the 100% achieved by Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed Selma (2014), which deals with similar issues of civil rights and prejudice in America. I do not seek to condemn Hidden Figures for it’s failings; it’s heart is in the right place and, after all that, it is a feel-good movie that I would recommend to almost anyone. Rather, I think we should be encouraging filmmakers to treat us and their subjects with respect by avoiding cheap victories, and to show us wonderful true stories as they really happened.

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