The space race is on. Sputnik has orbited and the Russians are in the lead. Hidden Figures tells this based-on-a-true-story in the predictable ways of a triumphal movie. We meet the three African American heroines stranded next to a broken-down car on their way to work at NASA. The challenge of this day is to actually get there, as the car just won’t start. A police officer shows up, and they use his concern for America in the space contest to get past his initial prejudice. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe, also in recently reviewed Moonlight) uses a similar tactic earlier in the film to get a judge to let her take the classes she needs at an all-white school to fulfill her desire to become an engineer: “Wouldn’t you like to be remembered in history as the first?”
Cinematically, Hidden Figures is solid, and the story likely only tells a small percentage of the truth of what these three women actually endured.
Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), who manages the 20 or so African American “computers” (women who do the calculations) in the West Wing, struggles to be recognized as a supervisor, and even more for her ability to understand the emerging field of the IBM computer.
The real Katherine Johnson, the third woman highlighted in the film, recently told the Washington Post she was just doing her job. Just doing her job—while climbing over the barriers placed in her way because she was black and female. In the film, Katherine (Taraji Henson) becomes the center of the story, for ultimately, John Glenn turns to her when he is about to launch into his orbit around the earth. He wants Katherine to make sure the numbers are right to calculate his return to earth.
Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) is fully committed to the cause of getting someone in space. That he is surprised that Katherine must go half a mile to the colored restrooms shows his ignorance of the law or that, in his obsession with the moon, he usually chooses to ignore the details of life. He proclaims that at NASA they must put aside these separations so they can achieve their goal. He makes room for Katherine on his team and gets her entry into the all-male meetings that work on details of the Friendship Seven mission. While he certainly should be respected for these changes, he still seems blindly naïve about the reality of how racism works.
Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), the lead engineer, carries the weight of the one who can’t see the possibilities and is blinded by race and gender. He must have the separate coffee pot, and he deliberately redacts information to make Katherine’s job more difficult. She does the math and often provides the solutions to problems, but the report, according to Paul, should have only his name on it. He is the engineer and she is just a computer, but it is her ability both to think outside what has gone before and to break the box of tradition that helps her to be so valuable in the successful space missions. She continues to put her name on the cover page each time, laying claim to the importance of her contribution.
Go see Hidden Figures. Cinematically, it is solid and calculated, with little risk, and the story likely only tells a small portion of the truth of what these three women actually endured, but their superb acting keeps you fully engaged in the narrative.
I find it sobering to write about Hidden Figures over the same weekend that an executive order was signed to keep people out of the United States based on their religion and ethnicity. For what Hidden Figures ultimately tells us is that the advance into space would not have happened if society had kept doing things by the social mores of the time. Enormous possibilities are denied when some are excluded from the game or from the discovery or formation of new ideas. I should likely not discuss politics here, but I have come to understand that the telling of a story is by nature political, social, and cultural. Stories tell us how to think about others, what we think is possible, and what is the nature of our society. My favorite line in the movie is Katherine’s response to the question, “Do you think we can get to the moon?” She replies, “I am already there in my mind.” She inspires me to continue to see the amazing potential in the students I teach, to be part of a welcoming community where I live, and to keep seeing what seems impossible.
All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.