Can we take a moment to bask in how truly awesome this movie’s existence is? Not only does it star three women of color in leading roles (and none of them play slaves or servants), but it also tells the story of women working as NASA mathematicians, programmers, and engineers. And it’s based on real people and events from the 1960s. And it covers racism and sexism in the workplace and how women of color are discriminated against more than men of color and white women. To see this film crush it at the box office is like a giant middle finger to Hollywood. Now you guys can’t use the shitty excuse that women (specifically, women of color) don’t sell at the box office anymore because RECEIPTS.
Based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name, Hidden Figures follows calculators Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), who work for NASA during the 1960s Space Race between Russia and the U.S. Despite facing both racism and sexism at work, the women strive for career advancement. Jackson is determined to receive a college degree in engineering so she can become an engineer at NASA. Vaughan realizes she’ll lose her job to an IBM computer, so she teaches herself and her coworkers programming language FORTRAN to avoid obsolescence. And Johnson is tasked with helping Space Task Group find the equations necessary for John Glenn’s (Glen Powell) orbit around the earth and reentry.
I was a bit concerned that Hidden Figures has a white director (Theodore Melfi) and a white screenwriter (Allison Schroeder) because, in many cases, stories about people of color told by people who’ve never experienced their struggles can veer into questionable territory with white savior tropes and misguided views on racism (i.e., They utilize caricatures of overt racism and ignore the aspects of systemic racism where people may not be directly antagonistic but look the other way to benefit from said racism). Fortunately, Hidden Figures doesn’t fall into these narrative traps.
For example, after Johnson is yelled at for missing work because she has to run across campus just to use the “colored” bathroom, Space Task Group boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) declares that all bathrooms are open to people of all races. This moment could’ve easily led Harrison down a white savior path, but it didn’t because it was written to be less about him speaking for black women and more about him ensuring that his employees have the ability to do their work without obstruction. In the same vein, the way engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) and calculator Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) are shown as institutionalized racists in the movie is well done. Both use discrimination as a means to keep Johnson and Vaughan from advancing in their careers. In other words, just because they don’t use the n-word or put burning crosses in front of people’s homes doesn’t mean they’re not racists of some form.
What I love about this movie is that it’s sharing a fascinating story we never heard while learning about the Space Race. Sure, we knew about John Glenn, but we didn’t know the names of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, or Mary Jackson. Hell, the first time I ever heard about Johnson was when she was awarded the Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2015. There’s SO much good material in American history that we’re not taught because it’s left out (whether for brevity or for revisionism), so this is a place where Hollywood can shine. Give us more films like Hidden Figures. You don’t need more franchise films or another goddamn movie about slaves. There’s a treasure trove of stories about people, like these women, who changed history just waiting to be uncovered.
My only criticism is that Hidden Figures has a few moments where it slips into Hallmark-like “made for TV” movie territory. Like when Jackson’s husband pulls out a cheesy “You’d know your children better if you were ever home” argument. Yes, it does give us an understanding of Jackson’s life outside of NASA, but it also has a creating drama for drama’s sake feel to it, which is unnecessary considering it’s not a consistent issue for Jackson throughout the movie. Thankfully, those moments are few and far between, so it’s not enough to take away from the overall solidity of the story.
I’ll leave you with this…if you need a feel-good movie right now, go see Hidden Figures. I promise you will leave with a smile.
Hidden Figures: A-
Listen to my Hidden Figures review on “Pat & JT in the Morning” here (at 40:21).