Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson are three women whose names everyone should know. The three African-American NASA mathematicians were instrumental in sending John Glenn into space. But, as is the case with women and people of color, the trio’s integral role in the pioneering mission was all but erased from history.
Fifty years later, at a time when those demographics still are unseen and undervalued, that Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson are finally having their stories told and contributions celebrated isn’t just lovely, it is crucial. And that it’s happening in a film as crowd-pleasing as Hidden Figures is even more important.
Hidden Figures is the kind of movie you see with your family. In three or four years, it will be on TBS on a Sunday afternoon and you’ll not seek it out, per se, but you’ll keep it on first as background noise and ultimately get sucked into it—“Like I always do,” you’ll say—and be crying by the end.
It’s the kind of movie that some asshole friend of yours whose cultural opinions are always a bit much will groan when you mention it, calling it cloying or reductive and launch into some nonsense about its lack of nuance and civil rights tourism. “Like The Blind Side,” they’ll say, reminding you that you should watch The Blind Side again because you love that film, and then re-watch Hidden Figures, too.
Hidden Figures is sappy and simple, but inspirational and actually quite towering in its mission: to give three women credit where it’s long been due, to dramatize the struggle they doggedly fought to create opportunity for themselves and for those who came after them, and, through the power of a movie that leaves you beaming at the end, to encourage all of us to continue that fight.
The film will last, the way movies this feel-good and emotional do (Remember the Titans is a comparison that comes to mind). But it will be impossible to divorce your first viewing from the time and cultural climate you’re watching it in, which in this case is after an election plagued by discourse that left women in the mold of Johnson, Vaughn, and Jackson feeling violated, limited, unwanted, and silenced.
Watching these three mathematicians stand up for respect and validity, refusing to be stifled by their gender, the color of their skin, or institutionalized racial bias will leave tears in your eyes.
It’s the movie that Trump’s America—our America—needs. It’s a historical roadmap to the values required to make America great again.
It’s fitting that Hidden Figures, a film about the work of mathematicians, embraces formula so well.
Directed by Theodore Melfi from a script he co-wrote with Allison Schroeder, it’s paint-by-numbers filmmaking, from the decades-spanning story structure to the music cues (a fantastic Motown soundtrack) to its tried-and-true emotional crescendo. But it’s paint-by-numbers filmmaking so well-executed that Hidden Figures, hardly an arthouse groundbreaker, is generating serious Oscar buzz.
The success of the movie is a reminder that when a film doesn’t try to color outside the lines, it can still be a vibrant, polished masterpiece.
The film opens on a young Katherine (Lidya Jewett), the kind of girl whose level of precociousness only exists in these kinds of movies, whose mind is so gifted the entire community rallies to pay for her to go to the only Negro school that goes past the eighth grade. In a film so heartwarming that it essentially sets a hotplate under your aorta, it starts off close to a boiling point.
We then flash forward to what is one of 2016’s greatest joys: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae in a car together. Well technically the actresses, who play Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary, respectively, are on the side of the road, their car broken down on the way to work at NASA.
They tease each other and announce their personalities so clearly so instantly—Katherine’s the stressed-out rule-follower, Dorothy’s the mother figure with an edge, Mary’s the gregarious spitfire—that you are certain right away that you are going to enjoy every second spent with these women over the course of the next two hours.
When a suspicious cop pulls over to investigate what the women are up to, they inform him, to his wonder, that they’re on the way to NASA. “I had no idea they hired…” the cop begins before Dorothy interrupts: “There are quite a few women working in the space program,” she says, in one exchange illustrating the racial bias these brilliant minds are up against.
Women began working for NASA in the 1930s to do the tedious and time-consuming calculating and plotting of test data because, according to CNN, they were “considered more patient and detail-oriented than men (and they could be paid less).” With the women doing the computing—they were literally called “computers”—the men were free to be engineers and researchers.
NASA began recruiting black women for the computing pool in the 1940s, following an executive order from President Roosevelt that prohibited discrimination in the defense industry. In the 1960s, when most of Hidden Figures takes place, the black women were sequestered onto Langley’s “West Area Computing” wing and, of course, used segregated bathrooms.
For all of the film’s broadness, it does an excellent job early on shading Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary’s ambition.
They’re all undeniably talented, but on various levels are resigned to how far the system will allow them to go. Dorothy requests to be a supervisor, but is told black women aren’t allowed to be. Mary’s co-workers encourage her to apply to be an engineer, but no black woman has ever been one and she doesn’t know if it’s worth the trouble. And Katherine, at least in the beginning, prefers to let her mind speak for itself.
Eventually, Katherine is recruited by Kevin Costner’s Al Harrison to do the computing for John Glenn’s landmark mission.
When she walks into the room, she’s confused for a janitor and told immediately that she should expect to be fired. A superior played by Jim Parsons refuses to give her the information she needs to do her work effectively, essentially setting her up to fail. When she needs to use the restroom, she must literally run a mile across the Langley campus to use the colored bathroom in the West Area Computing building, taking her work with her to do on the toilet because that’s how fast the numbers need to be crunched.
But she is so smart that she overcomes all of these hurdles, eventually earning the respect of her co-workers and proving herself invaluable. So invaluable, in fact, that before John Glenn will agree to be launched on his three-circuit trip around the Earth he personally requests that Katherine confirm an actual computer’s calculations.
Both Dorothy and Mary have similar arcs. Dorothy trains herself on how to use a computer when the first IBM is rolled into the building, an asset that finally earns her the respect of a perfectly prickly Kirsten Dunst. (A bathroom exchange in which Dunst’s character tells Dorothy she doesn’t have a problem with black people, to which Dorothy responds, “I know… you really believe that,” is among the film’s best.)
Mary must petition a judge to allow her to take the advanced classes she needs to apply to be an engineer at an all-white school, gifting Monáe with the script’s most rousing monologue, which she delivers so powerfully you want to stand up and applaud.
In a refreshing reversal of industry norms, it’s the film’s white characters that are superficially drawn, with Costner’s, especially, crafted as the well-meaning good guy who didn’t know how prejudiced he was until Katherine opens his eyes. His rapid transformation into a sort-of noble white savior is likely historically inaccurate, and the biggest casualty of the story’s formulaic Hollywood treatment.
At one point, after he takes a stand against the segregated bathroom policy that has Katherine running all over campus, he bellows, “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color,” which is laughably obtuse as far as the “white guy solves racism” Hollywood trope goes.
But it’s the dignity that Henson and her two talented co-stars give their performances that counterbalances moments like those. And while we still have conversation about gender equality, racial equality, pay, and opportunity in the workplace, that dignity is what makes the film so powerful and resonant.
After Katherine makes the significant calculation for Glenn, literally saving the NASA space program, her co-workers run into the control room to radio it and the door literally shuts in her face before she gets into the room. It’s hard not to read into the symbolism of that.
Katherine is the most intelligent, invaluable asset NASA has. She does the work. In fact, she works twice as hard as everyone, and runs even farther, thanks to the ridiculous bathroom rule, only to have the door literally shut in her face.
Sure, Hidden Figures is scripted in Hallmark clichés about “living the impossible and shooting for the stars,” with enough similar dialogue to fill the entire greeting card section at CVS. But if you hang out in that aisle long enough, you’re going to reliably get a good laugh and even better cry eventually.
That’s exactly what Hidden Figures does, but it also accomplishes something more. It gives glory to three women who, though they’ve won awards and had successful careers, had otherwise been relegated to footnotes and parentheticals in the recounting of history. It’s a reminder to see the people whose contributions are too often left in the shadows, but also to never stop doing the work that demands to be seen.