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Review/Comparison of #HiddenFigures film and book

Review/Comparison of #HiddenFigures film and book

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

published by William Marrow, 2016

and also

Hidden Figures directed by Theodore Melfi

released by 20th Century Fox, 2016


If you’re from the United States, you know someone who has seen Hidden Figures and raved over the performances of leads Octavia Butler, Taraji P. Henson, and Janelle Monáe. The movie was based on a nonfiction work of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly. No one seems to be reading the book. The film follows the lives of three black female mathematicians at NASA in 1961-1962.

The book, however, looks at decades of scientists and mathematicians at NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) with the three women from the film tenuously holding the book together to create some “story.” There are dozens of employees at NACA who are featured, and it’s difficult to know who to remember and who’s just “passing through.” I kept highlighting the names of folks who never appeared on the pages again.

While the film is delightful, honors the lives of three black female mathematicians, and clearly has an agenda, the book is scattered, confusing, and wants to be both science and narrative.

The first thing I noticed is the writing is unclear at times. Shetterly’s words come in an awkward order at times:

As Dorothy learned — the West Area Computers received many assignments from the lab’s Flight Research Division — it was not good enough to say that a plane flew well or badly….”

A simple rewrite would make the sentence clearer: The West Area Computers received many assignments from the lab’s Flight Research Division, and Dorothy learned that it was not good enough to say that a plane flew well or badly….

I had trouble staying engaged while I was reading. Long passages about various scientists and mathematicians make my eyes play a game of Where’s Waldo, except instead of searching for a little man in a stripped shirt, I was looking for the stories of the three main characters I had seen in the film: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson. These women are few and far between, and the book rarely demonstrates a clear connection between them. Basically Dorothy is older, so she got to NACA first, thus opened the door for women like Jackson and Johnson. However, they don’t work together (to be fair, Johnson works for Vaughan for 2-3 weeks before she’s relocated).


Left to Right: Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monae), and Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer)

While the film would suggest Vaughan, Jackson, and Johnson were best friends and rode to work everyday, the truth is they had other best friends, both black and white women. Many women are removed from the film, to consolidate characters I would image. Kirstin Dunst’s character (not in the book) comes out looking like a grumpy “my hands are tied” passive racist. At one point she says “Ya’ll should be thankful you even have jobs at all.” However, in Shetterly’s book, NACA heavily recruited from black colleges; these women were wanted and needed.

Furthermore, Shetterly emphasizes that Mary Jackson’s “treasured friend,” Gloria Champine, was a white woman, and their relationship was “one of the most poignant of all the stories” Shetterly heard during her research. They two worked together to help all women in the workplace advance, get hired, and gain independence from men.

One of the biggest climaxes of the film, featured proudly in the trailer for Hidden Figures, meant to highlight racial tension was Kevin Costner’s character bapping down a “Colored Girls” sign from above a restroom door. He did so because Katherine Johnson was gone from her desk too long, having to make the mile trip from her desk in one building to the “Colored Girls’ restroom on the other side of the NACA campus.

I was surprised to learn that Johnson never experienced problems with the bathroom; she was light-skinned enough that she “passed.” While author Shetterly doesn’t suggest Johnson lied about her race, she does write that Johnson happily avoided racism in her workplace, and even ate and played card games with her white male co-workers at lunch. Costner’s big dramatic moment was highly unnecessary — the focus tries to be on Johnson’s humiliation at having to run for a restroom, but the focus is wobbly at best. His character, though, was necessary, as he represented a mishmash of several white men working at NACA. When I watched the film, I appreciated that he spent most of his screen time pacing behind a glass window so as to stay out of the spotlight, but based on the book, Johnson interacted positively with her white colleagues frequently.

Instead, it was Mary Jackson who, on one occasion, had white women laugh at her because she asked where the “Colored Girls” restroom could be found — they giggled because their opinion was, “why should we know?” No one tore down the “Colored Girls” sign; it was simply gone one day. According to the Shetterly, racism existed in NACA as a result of what amounts to complacency. When Christine Darden, another woman left out of the film, couldn’t understand sexism at NACA, she asked her “boss’s boss’s boss”:

“Why is it that men get placed into engineering groups while women are sent to the computing pools?” Christine asked him. “Well, nobody’s ever complained,” he answered. “The women seem to be happy doing that. so that’s just what they do.”

Now, if you feel like I’m diminishing the struggles of black women (and men) in the space race, please try to understand. I’m simply pointing out that the film added a whole lot that didn’t happen and consolidated many people into one character. It suggested NACA was very “us vs. them,” and Shetterly doesn’t suggest that in her book at all. Whether the film or author is portraying the history incorrectly is not known to me. I do know that Shetterly writes in generalities instead of citing specific examples.

Of course there was racism in 1940s-1060s Virginia. What struck me was the vicious racism that happened around NACA in town that never made it to the film. When schools legally had to desegregate, one governor took all the money from a district that tried to comply with the law and shut down all the schools — for five years. Some white mothers screamed that they would rather have their kids out of school than sitting next to “a Negro.”

To me, this seemed way more important than a dramatic bathroom sign scene. If there’s anything Vaughan, Jackson, and Johnson stood for, it was a solid education. In their own state, a whole generation of children missed a large portion of their education (50% or more).

Both versions of Hidden Figures have value, but the audience for each is not the same. The nonfiction work is geared more toward history buffs with a solid grasp of science and math who care less about the people (there are a lot to keep track of) and more about the history of the science. The movie can be enjoyed by audiences from all walks who are looking for a powerful narrative the likes of which rarely appear in white-washing Hollywood. Then again, the film creates dualism that doesn’t exist in the book.

Wild (film)

This was my second book-to-film cinema experience this weekend. This time I watched Wild with Reese Witherspoon starring as Cheryl Strayed, a woman who walks the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). The movie was released December 5th to a limited number of cities (not mine) and this morning was the earliest I could get there. Wild has been on my calendar since I heard when it would be released, so those extra two weeks were frustrating. The movie, of course, is based on Strayed’s wildly successful memoir of the same title. I did a brief and not-totally-helpful review of the audiobook earlier this year.


The movie begins with Strayed on the side of a mountain removing a hiking book and shrieking. Her big toe nail is barely hanging on, and as she removes the offending nail and screams in pain, one of her boots falls down the side of mountain. In frustration, she flings the other boot off, too, screaming, “Fuck you, bitch!” Now, this part was both awful and funny—for some reason, perhaps the early show time (10:40am), I was the youngest person in the theater by about 40 years.

Through flashbacks and less-than-one-second clips of film, we learn that Strayed is recently divorced and grieving the death of her mother, a woman who was the “love of [Strayed’s] life.” Between the death and the divorce, Strayed has intercourse with anyone who asks, including her restaurant customers (sometimes more than one at a time) and bar patrons, but she no longer is intimate with her husband. She’s smoking and shooting heroine to be “happy.”

The sexual aspect of this film very carefully delivers a message that too often gets confused in America: just because woman did something promiscuous in her past does not mean she’s “asking for it” in the present.

While on the PCT, Strayed only has one sexual partner, and the rest of the time she fears for her physical safety. Men constantly imply she’s “that kind of girl” and try to get her alone. They inch toward the notion that if only she’d put out, she’d get something in return: food, a ride, shelter, water. I mean, come in; what kind of woman walks 1,000 miles alone (goes the thinking). The way Strayed seems practically chased down the PCT as she tries to escape would-be rapists made me feel like I was running too, from a fear that women must always assume could turn into a reality. At one point, Strayed sees two hunters. After they spend too much time with their hands on their low-slung belts and talk about her like she’s not there, Strayed claims she’s leaving. Around the bend, she sets up camp and changes into her pajamas only to realize one of the hunters has followed watched her change. He says he likes the way her hips and legs and “tight ass” look in her pants. Strayed asks that he not say that, but he retorts that women don’t know how to take a compliment. Sound familiar? We’ve been discussing what constitutes sexual harassment in America so much lately, and Wild addresses it over and over and over again. It was a strong aspect of the film–my favorite, in fact. I was so proud when one man tells Strayed “you sound like a feminist” like it’s an insult, and she replies, “I am.”

While much of the movie is walking and Strayed talking to herself, the flashbacks come in at key moments and overlap with the present, suggesting Strayed can’t tell the difference. At one point, she looks in the window of a cabin only to see an x-ray of her mother’s spine, which is covered in tumors. Other times, songs send Strayed back. For instance, a song on the radio reminds Strayed of her mother singing in the kitchen. Annoyed, Strayed tells her mom (played by Laura Dern) to stop singing because there is no reason to be happy: they are both full-time waitresses, college students, and they will have loan debt for the rest of their lives. Strayed’s mother reminds her daughter to find the best version of herself and cling to it. Strayed remains fiercely annoyed and disappointed. At one point, she even feels the need to tell her mom that she is a more sophisticated woman than her mother was at the same age. The scenes between Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern were beautiful. Dern has the right kind of rugged look mixed with a soft side that suggests she’s been through a lot, but is a delicate and beautiful person nonetheless. Dern almost comes off as an “everywoman’s mother,” making it not so hard to believe she could be in your kitchen singing and taking to you.

The other characters in the cast had the same harsh look to them, but not as much softness. This is a good thing. Strayed’s friend Aimee has thick, unplucked eyebrows, messy hair, and lacks make-up. She looks like the most regular woman in the nation. Strayed looks much worse: her face is bruised from walking into branches, there are massive bruises/rashes/bloody spots everywhere her pack contacts her body, her feet are covered in blisters and bleeding, and she seems to have huge half-dried scabs on any part of her that’s pointy (knuckles, knees, elbows, etc.). The beauty in this is that the movie doesn’t take the story of a woman on the edge of life and death and make her Hollywood glamorous. As much as I love Katniss Everdeen, ever notice she always has at least some mascara and lip gloss? Such touches distract from a film in which a woman is fighting for her life.

The only part I couldn’t get behind was the fox. After a while, it’s clearly a metaphor for Strayed’s mother watching her on the PCT, but the creature was a fairly pitiful computer generated image. Also, Reese Witherspoon seemed pretty insistent on biting down spoons whenever she ate, which in a Dolby Digital surround-sound theater is pretty loud and awful. Clunk, clink, chomp, swallow. Lots of it. Finally, during the credits actual photos of author Cheryl Strayed on the PCT were displayed, but they didn’t appear right away, so most of the theatergoers had left. I stayed because I assumed it would be a huge mistake if the filmmaker didn’t take the opportunity to compare Witherspoon and the author, and I was justified.

Overall, Wild doesn’t need to be “touched up.” It doesn’t need unnecessary drama, explosions, fight scenes, or other fanfare that has become standard in American film to keep our preoccupied brains at attention. In fact, much of the film relies on internal monologue, brief dialogue, or silence—even if Strayed’s heart is screaming. Instead, the movie says something about Americans today: the way they act and react to a world that can close down its jaws and bite hard.


The Theory of Everything

You may be asking why I’m reviewing a movie on a book review site. The Theory of Everything is based on the memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen Hawking by Jane Hawking. After watching the movie, I plan on reading the book.


I know almost nothing about Stephen Hawking’s real life, so I have no comparison between that and the movie. However, I thought the transformation the actors underwent was breathtaking. Eddie Redmayne WAS Stephen Hawking in this movie (and has already been nominated for a 2015 Golden Gold award for best actor). Hawking is adorable and charming only to discover he has a disease that will cease muscle function. The true scientist, he asks if it affects his brain (no, it doesn’t). Redmayne changes from a bit clumsy to nearly completely immobile in an electric wheelchair with a computer to speak for him. If you compare pictures of the actor and the physicist, they are amazingly same.

Hawking had already been courting a young woman named Jane (played by Felicity Jones) when he learns he has 2 years to live. When she hears what will happen to him, Jane says she loves him. The two are married, and while Hawking’s muscles stop working, the family grows (the couple have 2 children; there are no muscles in the penis, of course). Hawking, though almost completely immobile, is shown as funny, loving, and a good father. I watched as Felicity Jones changed from a bright, strong young woman working toward a degree in Literature to a woman who was so strong that it was often difficult to tell if she was struggling; she seems to know what Hawking wants before he can ask for it.

Jane is struggling to care for Hawking and 2 kids. The film suggests she doesn’t want to seem a failure because she is working so hard, but how can she not face difficulty? Not only are there physical issues and typical family problems, but Hawking is invited to lecture and travel, too. When Jane joins the choir at church (at the suggestion of her mother), she meets the director, Jonathan (Charlie Cox), a man who is handsome, widowed, and helpful. One can’t help but wonder if the mother knew Jonathan had all those qualities, which was the motive behind her suggestion. You want to hate Jonathan because you know he’s going to encroach on Hawking’s family, but watch as Jonathan actually does help the family. Hawking is friends with Jonathan, who is ever the gentleman. Really, it felt ingenious of the director to choose Cox; he was the loveable, adorable Tristan inStardust. It would almost be too much to believe Cox was capable of hurting the Hawking family. However, once a 3rd baby is born, the couple’s families want to know if the baby’s father is Jonathan or Hawking. Jane says there is no way the baby could belong to Jonathan, and Jones makes you believe her with her steely gaze and stern mouth.

Eventually, the Hawkings must accept help from a nurse, and this is when Elaine Mason is hired to care for Hawking. After meeting him, Elaine tells Jane that Hawking is brilliant and the model patient, and that Jane is lucky. After years as his personal nurse, this is not what Jane wants to hear from the new lady. Elaine seems to “get” Hawking’s non-scientific side in a way that makes Jane seem impatient. When a copy of a pornographic magazine arrives, Hawking types into his speaking machine, “That is for a friend.” The scene shows Hawking’s humor, and Elaine, also amusing, puts the magazine for him on a music stand and asks when he wants the pages turned. Peake is delightful as Elaine Mason, but I’ve read that a nurse accused Peake of abusing Hawking, so I felt suspicious of the woman in the movie (even though the film depicts her so that we like her).

Ultimately, time tells us that Hawking marries Elaine, and that Jane marries Jonathan, though Jane and Hawking remain good friends.

The film is based on Jane Hawking’s book Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen Hawking. If you look on Goodreads, the book has 100+ reviews, meaning it’s not well-read (in comparison, Fifty Shades of Gray has 965,000+). The film might change that. She also has a number of 1-star reviews, and readers confess they felt Jane knew what she was getting into when she married Hawking, so why “complain” (to me, this is unbelievably cold).

However, there are noble moments in the movie that would contradict what readers claim: when Jane is offered the chance to turn off Hawking’s life support after he can no longer breathe on his own (yes, it is presented as a “chance”—doctors can see that caring for Hawking is the horribly difficult and draining his young wife), she doesn’t think about it for a second. Also, the movie implies that Jane possibly cheated on Hawking only after the couple realizes they aren’t going to make it together. Jane remains a strong figure in Hawking’s life, and never once did I dislike her in the movie. Of course she struggling; anyone who rubs that in her face (either after reading the book or watching the movie) is pretty unforgiving.

The pacing of the movie is steady, indicating time has passed by showing the children growing or Hawking faring worse (physically). We also see stores stocking Hawking’s writings. The story begins and ends in the fashion that Americans love: happy. Hawking says, “Look what we did” as he and Jane watch their children play together.

Overall, The Theory of Everything was worth the watch. The cast was strong and carefully chosen, and the story was contained in the right amount of time, and an interesting look into the romantic, personal side of a world-famous physicist.