In the wake of the election, it’s impossible to view new movies in the lens they were intended. Having made their films a year or two ago, filmmakers of now couldn’t have predicted the rise and win of Trump Nation. And yet most “award season” movies I’m seeing seem to comment directly on it, either with warnings or rallying cries. Hidden Figures offers the latter, along with a too long ignored history lesson, and much-needed illustrations of privilege.
Based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s award-winning non-fiction book, Hidden Figures reveals the incredible true stories of genius mathematician Katherine Johnson, defiant computer programmer Dorothy Vaughan, and groundbreaking aerospace engineer Mary Jackson, Black women who all contributed to NASA successes in the early days of the space race.
Right off the bat, this science-centered biopic faces a pair of challenges in dodging dullness. One is that the depiction of STEM fields—mathematician stooped over scribbling equations, engineers mulling over incomprehensible blue-prints—is traditionally a tedious, un-cinematic affair. The other is that biopics too respectful of their subject (looking at you Unbroken) forget to make their hero human, flawed and relatable. Thankfully, the script by Allison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) keeps the focus on its fierce females, whose bold character informed their victories just as much as their sharp minds did. Sure, there’s shots of math-covered chalkboards, the early IBMs, and scientific testing. But these all play backdrop to Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson’s journeys for professional respect and a historic legacy. (Also there’s a love subplot that has Mahershala Ali going full sweetness and sex ba-bomb. Someone get this dude a romantic comedy immediately. We need it.)
Naturally it helps that Melfi collected a trio of fantastically charismatic leading ladies, who not only ground moments of muted drama, but also bring a contagious mirth to moments of joy. Academy Award-nominee Taraji P. Henson sheds her Cookie swagger for a pair of cat-eye glasses and humble determination to play Johnson, widowed mother of two, recently promoted to one of the most high pressure rooms at NASA, where she is one of two women, and the lone Black person. Academy Award-winner Octavia Spencer plays Vaughan, mother hen and unofficial supervisor to a pool of “colored” and female mathemeticians, whose jobs will be the first to go once NASA gets that massive IBM running. And singer/fashion icon/Moonlight scene-stealer Janelle Monáe brings her resilient sass and withering wit to Jackson, an aspiring engineer who must go to court for the right to take classes that would allow her to advance at NASA.
Each story is studded with the kind of gut-punch injustices we like to think we’re past as a society. But November 9th was a cold wake-up call that the fight isn’t over. And so, Hidden Figures becomes not just a celebration of these women, but also a playbook on how to weather the storm of injustice and even battle against it.
Johnson’s story is the film’s main focus, and also the one that most clearly illustrates privilege. Surrounded by white folk, Johnson is regarded as an instant outsider, mistrusted and mysterious. She’s dealt daily blows of disrespect by the most outspokenly racist of the group (Jim Parsons playing his standard elitist nerd shtick with a generous dollop of sneers), who blacks out massive sections of reports she’s supposed to math-check and regularly takes credit for her work. Not trusted to share the office coffee pot, she’s given a busted one of her own, coldly informed of this segregation by a none-too-subtle on pot label: “COLORED.” But most egregious of all is her bathroom dilemma.
On her first day in her new job, Johnson sheepishly approaches the only other woman in the office to ask where the bathroom is. She’s told curtly there are no colored bathrooms in this building. And so, Johnson gathers up the reports she’s working on and runs the half-mile back to her former on-campus office, where the lone colored women’s restroom lies. There hunched on the toilet, she does her computations as she does her business. She does this every day. Sometimes running in the rain. Always in heels. The allegory of bathroom access provides a clear parallel to trans people’s current fight for very basic rights to relieve themselves without making a daily drama over it.
Watching Johnson and her friends confront prejudice and adversity, both overtly bigoted and subtly so, I thought of a quote misattributed to famed dancer/movie star Ginger Rogers, noting how she did everything Fred Astaire did, but “backwards and in high heels.” What Fred Astaire had was privilege. Yes. He was a marvelous dancer, and so was rightly admired. But Rogers, being a woman, had even greater obstacles. Even though her job was more difficult because of all the sexist bullshit that came her way—like having to follow by dancing backwards and in heels—she gets less credit. You rarely hear her name outside of discussion of the more famous man she dances with. And so it goes for so many, if they get acknowledged at all. So it went for the women of Hidden Figures for years. They had to do the same work of white men and white women of NASA, yet were treated as if they were less than, interlopers, or spies.
And yet, they did not crumble. They joined together in times of exhaustion and flailing hope. They rallied. And they thrived, helping to build a space program that was a source of pride for the entire nation. And they didn’t do it alone. Kevin Costner co-stars as Johnson’s boss/the white man who is finally forced to rip his eyes away from his own concerns and see how stupid barriers and insulting segregation was keeping his team from working together to create their best work. That’s an element so often lost in conversations about representation, diversity, and inclusion. Leveling the playing field is not just about making things “fair.” It’s about opening the doors for people whose talents and skills could better serve us all if they didn’t have to overcome scads of bullshit high-heeled and backwards obstacles to show us what they’ve got.
All told, Hidden Figures is sensational, spirited, and necessary. It reminds us not only where we’ve been, but how far we still have to go, and gives us signs of hope and direction. See it. Live it. And somebody give Taraji P. Henson a damn Oscar already!