Directed by Theodore Melfi
Screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi
Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, and Kevin Costner
Twentieth Century Fox
December 25, 2016
As we march inexorably toward the January 20th inauguration of a president that many feel will be detrimental to the very fabric of what it means to be American, Hidden Figures sheds a light on what the very best of American ingenuity can bring about–innovation and social progress.
Based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction book of the same name, Hidden Figures tells the story of the women behind well-known astronaut stories like The Right Stuff. Set right at the cusp of the age of IBM processors, during the Mercury missions, the movie follows three women working as computers–mathematicians–at NASA’s Langley Research Center.
The structure of Hidden Figures is conventional–problems are introduced and solutions are presented linearly. There’s not much surprise to be had from these characters; the tension comes from learning these personal, untold stories. The audience knows Friendship 7 flew to space and orbited earth. The audience doesn’t know much about the details behind that, what happened before we enter mission control. And despite following a predictable formula for biopics, especially ones angling for awards, there is something immensely satisfying about the film. Days after it opened, my audience was still riveted and interactive, clapping at each triumph and then at the end, when images of the real women played before the credits. It’s a formulaic film that is a shining example of what can be made when the formula works; you feel good watching it, knowing it was real, knowing that these women did succeed (and knowing that most of what plays out on screen is fairly historically accurate!).
The film focuses primarily on their work at NASA, but takes time to really create, at least visually, a rich community for Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan, (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) to inhabit. The film is judicious with its running time, but it introduces the women as standout pillars in their black neighborhood, highly regarded by their peers. We see the community around them supporting them despite not getting to know their neighbors by name. For example, though we barely hear Vaughan’s husband speak a word, the film gives us a scene where they slow dance. It’s assumed that their relationship is built on respect, because that’s something valued by their community. These scenes also help show the audience how ingrained the Civil Rights Movement was in every day American black life; there’s not a separation between political life and personal reality for the protagonists.
The audience is treated to bright colors that simultaneously give us a sense of time–the late 1960s–but also make the characters feel modern and relatable. Henson and Monáe are decked out in bold lipsticks that wouldn’t look out of place in a fashion spread today, and while all the clothing is period, it’s not dowdy or aged. These women look good, modern for their time and modern enough even for ours. The bright colors overtake the drab sepia tone given to a few childhood flashbacks, and the washed-out color of the obligatory historical footage of astronaut training and rocket launches. That was then, but this story could be now, these situations are not removed by as much time as many might hope.
The most remarkable thing about this film for me is how deftly it presents the cost and effort for each person’s work to overcome racism, within the mold of a conventional film about overcoming adversity. For the white men, the risk is mitigated by privilege; Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), director of the Space Task Group can bring Johnson into a Pentagon-level meeting because he ranks highly enough to do so. Paul Stafford (rather distractingly played by Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons) can allow Johnson’s name to be printed on a report, but it’s a huge risk for her to even add it in the first place. Each step they take toward equality for the women they work with is easy in comparison to the work the women do.
But the women have huge mountains to climb. There’s no bathroom for “colored women” in the east campus where Johnson now works. There’s no precedent for a black woman supervisor so Dorothy Vaughan is stuck doing the work with no title. There’s no continuing education program for women but especially not black woman, so Mary Jackson has to go to court to get approval to go to night classes. Racism permeates every aspect of their professional life, even with a community supporting them.
These women were forced to be exceptional in every way–becoming firsts in their roles as supervisor or engineer–and that exceptionalism is shown to be, at times, frustrating and exhausting. The characters are frank with each other when discussing the possibilities of combating racist barriers in their careers, and grappling with practicalities. The white people involved, however, are mostly blind to the true effect of racism in the seemingly progressive NASA, until absolute necessity forces them to confront it. The film makes space to commend the changes forced by white leadership at NASA, but never lets them off the hook for malicious behavior, unintended or not, and it never loses sight that real battles were being fought by black women in particular. It thankfully never teeters into white savior territory and instead shows us the extraordinary lengths that had to be taken in order to force action and how, even then, exceptionalism couldn’t do all the work.
Hidden Figures also takes care to highlight the potential losses to the space program, and thus the country, that racism causes. Jackson’s story is an illustration of this. Even though she has an aptitude for engineering and could have provided valuable insight into the heat paneling of the Mercury-Atlas, she’s forced to jump through hoops just to be considered. Heat panel malfunction then causes John Glenn to return to earth after three orbits rather than the planned seven; the film explicitly shows us what a risk it was to keep qualified black women out of the program. Again, it’s a predictable formula, and it isn’t subtle, but it does clearly broadcast a message without ever feeling heavy handed or preachy.
That’s aided by the natural performances of the three strong main actresses. Henson is the de facto lead, and she has the broadest range to work with in this film, from mother to being courted to struggling through the antipathy of her white, male coworkers. Henson’s fears never feel melodramatic; her performance is grounded in confidence and practicality. All three women walk a tightrope of inevitability; either things must change or they’ll lose their job, but something has to change. Spencer, as always, brings gravitas and inner steel to her portrayal of Vaughan, a woman concerned with the other black women around her. Monáe, who recently made her live-action debut in Moonlight, is absolutely charming as Mary Jackson, the sharpest tongued friend of the group. She’s magnetic on screen, and has chemistry to spare in her brief scenes with Aldis Hodge as Levi Jackson, her husband.
The brief romantic subplots would feel forced in a different movie that didn’t take the time to create a support network for these women. But the romance between Katherine and Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali) is fun, giving Henson another layer to explore and the audience a few excellent scenes of watching her tease him. Her love story is all about finding a man who wants to uplift her, take care of her family, and support her dreams; it’s all about her, and furthering her story. Similarly, the subplot between Mary Jackson and her husband is another example of a black man uplifting his partner and supporting her difficult career choices, despite personal risks. It’s interesting to see a film about women with families where families play side roles and support the ambitions of working women. Johnson’s daughters miss her due to her long hours, but know her work is important.
All math equations and weddings aside, the true heart of this movie is the friendship between these women and the strength they share. The abject joy of their friendship is infectious. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I wouldn’t love to hang out with the lead actresses in this film, but now I also want to be best friends with these characters. They love each other, and support each other. There’s no manufactured in-fighting, jealousy, or cattiness about one another’s success. And Vaughan’s storyline addresses their extended community and how the work of each women explicitly uplifts other black women. As the de facto supervisor, she risks her position in order to bring her all-black computing team up the ranks with her instead of letting them face obsolescence by IBM.
Hidden Figures is genuinely enjoyable, feel-good movie that also manages to present a clear-eyed look at racism at NASA during the space race, a reflection of that time period and our own. White characters are shown to not even realize the depth of their own complicitness with the oppressive system they benefited from; it’s on black women to educate at their own risk. Various racist encounters, bosses, and undermining never feel like they’re relics of the past in Hidden Figures. There’s triumph but the movie never suggests, this is all in the past and we’ve moved on. It does, however, tell us how we can move forward.