Book/Movie Chat: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly is, in a word, beautiful. In a few words it is a masterpiece of storytelling, weaving an accurate history of the machine that is the American aeronautics industry with the true stories of the Black women who made that machine run, the marriage of which ultimately lead America to the moon, into a narrative that is informative, entertaining, inspirational, and heartbreaking.

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This book is first and foremost an accurate history; there is no dialogue and no plot, but there is plenty of detailed information about the mathematical problems that the West Computers were tasked with solving each day. Shetterly does not want to bore us though and the subject matter hops about from maths, to race relations, to the womans personal lives, and back again. The flow of the narrative is perfect; never sitting on one topic for too long without being jumpy, never letting the reader grow bored but never letting us notice when the shifts occur. Shetterly does a phenomenal job letting us know this is not just an isolated bit of history, no, the math, the racism and sexism, the political climate, the women themselves do not exist in bubbles; Black history is not a month, it is American History and we need to hear it all or we aren’t getting the full story.

“Sometimes, she knew, the most important battles for dignity, pride, and progress were fought with the simplest of actions.”

And what a story it is. I started Hidden Figures with a roll of blue tabs to mark every time I cried. By the seventh marker I realized there were too many too frequently; I had cried, settled myself,then cried again over a different incident later on on the same page! I wasn’t just tearing up either, I was full on, have to sit the book down and collect myself, sobbing.
It isn’t that this book is “sad”; this book is inspiring. This book is powerful. This book is the story of the foundation of my very existence; the names and stories that led our country to the moon, led women into STEM, and ultimately led me to a world where I would never have to be one of the “girls”.

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This is the reason I was so disappointed with the movie.
Now we all know the movie can never be as in depth as the book, this is the downside to any transmedia adaptations, and I was willing to accept the inaccuracies I saw that were made for times sake. I get it; you can’t adequately cover the period from WWII to the Moon landing in two hours and its best to rearrange some things to make a good story. It is annoying. It is not a deal breaker.
My deal breaker came with the realization that the East Computing pool had been retconned into existence, well past the time they had been dissolved, so that a made up white woman could be a featured role in the film. It came when I noticed that every incident of segregation, every microaggression, every bit of blatant racism was fixed with hard work or the help of a white man. It came when I realized that this movie was made for white people.
In the book the women featured take down “Colored Girls” signs to preserve their own dignity; they use the “Whites Only” bathrooms and dare someone to stop them; they pester the white men to join meeting daily until eventually they just give up and let them in. In the the movie the not racist White Knight character fixes all of these problems for the women allowing a white man to take the spotlight for “saving” the day.
The racism depicted in this movie is the glossy, G-rated racism that doesn’t make white people uncomfortable to look at because they know that in the end it will all be set to rights by the white characters who aren’t really racist if you give then a chance.
If I look past the fact that the movie adaptation completely undermines the entire point of the story then, yeah, sure, it was a good movie. The acting on almost all fronts was superb, the sets were glorious, and they did an alright job squeezing the book down into a film. Its okay. I hate that it blunts the sharp edges of racism while trying to act as if its showing you racism. I hate that it undermines the accomplishments of the West Computers by giving them to a white man. I hate that it can’t hope to portray the emotion of the book. But as a stand alone experience it’s okay.

Hidden Figure by Margot Lee Shetterly is a solid 5/5 stars.
Hidden Figures directed by Theodore Melfi is a weak 3/5 stars. Maybe even 2.5, I am just that disappointed.

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