Once upon a time, such as during the early years of America’s space program, computer meant not “machine very good at doing math stuff superfast” (those were only just starting to roll out) but “person who does manual calculations.” This was considered rather menial labor, particular when a woman did it… and lots of women did it. (Obviously women had to do it: it was menial labor.) Though these women were as smart and as educated as the men they worked alongside, and often did much the same work as the men, they were paid less, in money and in respect, than the men (who held titles such as engineer and mathematician). Because, well, obviously anything done by women is de facto less prestigious and less important than anything men do. Otherwise men would be doing it.
And, therefore, anything done by black women is, obviously, barely worth mentioning. And “barely mentioned at all” has, outrageously, been the fate of so many black women who were absolutely essential to the US space program. You know the names Alan Shepard (first American in space) and John Glenn (first American to orbit Earth). But you have probably never heard the names Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson, who were pioneers in, respectively, mathematics, computer programming, and engineering at NASA, without whom those guys would never have flown. (Also worth noting: They were pioneers not in the sense that they did things that no black woman had ever done before, though that is also true. They were pioneers in that they did things that no one of any race or gender had ever done before.) Even in histories of, specifically, the numbers nerds who made the astronauts fly, they have been ignored.
Based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures is the it’s-about-damn-time true story that fixes that wrong and puts paid to the notion — so prominent because it’s barely been squashed — that the only people who had the Right Stuff in the moonshot effort were white and male. This is no dry history lesson, though, but an often funny, ultimately feel-good triumph of geeks who faced even more absurd odds and obstacles than any white boy with a pocket protector could have ever imagined (and which probably would have sent him scampering away in defeat). It is hugely exhilarating to see women, and especially black women, doing things they’ve always done — learning, achieving, innovating, winning despite all the barriers to their success that get tossed up against them — yet which are only vanishingly rarely acknowledged. It’s impossible to be overenthusiastic about this movie. We simply have not seen anything like it before, and it’s disgraceful that it has taken this long for its like to come along. Now that it’s here, Hidden Figures is cause for celebration.
Johnson is the central character here, and Taraji P. Henson (Top Five, Larry Crowne) is completely marvelous as a woman who does a lot of standing at blackboards chalking out calculations and making that genuinely thrilling, and not only because — *geeky squee* — she is trying to invent the math needed to put a ship into orbit and return it safely to the Earth’s surface. She lets us feel the gears turning in her head as she works, and we share how transporting it is for her to escape into the numbers when so much of her day is spent merely convincing all the white men around her that she can do the job… you know, the job that she ends up doing better than the rest of them. The maxim that a woman has to be twice as smart and work twice as hard as the men around her (maybe it’s four times as much for black women) to earn half the recognition gets a good ol’ workout, with deliberate and enraged irony, here. As does the cognitive dissonance required to acknowledge the importance of “women’s work” while simultaneously denigrating it. Director Theodore Melfi — who wrote the script with TV writer Allison Schroeder, making her feature debut — wrings a lot of wry humor out of simple visual moments as when Johnson hesitates while typing up of report for reasons that I won’t spoil but which have everything to do with her agitating for validation and endorsement of her work. Melfi also makes sly visual allusions to iconic moments from The Right Stuff: Johnson does a lot of running around NASA’s Langley, Virginia, campus à la Jeff Goldblum in that other film, though for wildly different reasons.
I wish I could remember who said this, but a fellow critic recently suggested that the visual cliché of the slo-mo victory walk that has become so common and so meaningless onscreen is a result of hack filmmakers trying to recapture the power of the first time we saw such a thing, deployed by director Philip Kaufman in, yup, The Right Stuff, highlighting the triumph of the Mercury 7 astronauts as they claim their place in history as the first Americans in space. Melfi’s use of it here — a victory walk led by the always wonderful Octavia Spencer (Bad Santa 2, Allegiant) as Vaughn, leading her “colored computers” to the plum new assignment at NASA that she has made happen — is clearly a reference to Kaufman, and clearly meant to elevate these women (and rightly so) to a realm as rarefied as the one those astronauts have enjoyed. Melfi may be the first filmmaker to have truly recaptured that moment, with characters who have actually earned the right to be proud of their achievements. It’s a glorious moment in the film.
And then there’s Jackson, whom Janelle Monáe (Moonlight, Rio 2) makes the spikiest of the three as she jumps through ridiculous hoops to get into NASA’s engineering training program, which was apparently not even open to women except someone neglected to mention that in the job listing. But as a black woman, she faces an actual legal battle to gain admission to the extra classes the job requires. And so Hidden Figures makes up for another omission of cinema: we’ve barely seen onscreen the realities of what life was like for African-Americans under segregation… a shameful period of the nation’s history that absolutely demands much more examination in pop culture. Here, though, through the interconnected stories of all three women, we feel the weight of the condescension of white people, the ignominy of separate public facilities (restrooms, libraries, lunch rooms), and the pressure to not complain about it all lest one be tagged as a troublemaker demanding special treatment. (Johnson does finally snap in a scene that is devastating.) The discrimination the women face because of their gender and their race is even more infuriating amidst the audacity of what NASA is attempting: as they look forward and up, they cannot see their own backwardness. As they are pushing boundaries in science, they stubbornly hold on to social boundaries.
Some white folks do get woke, such as Kevin Costner’s (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, McFarland USA) Al Harrison, head of the Space Task Group, the engineers with whom Johnson works, and Kirsten Dunst’s (Midnight Special, The Two Faces of January) Vivian Michael, the supervisor of the female computers. But they are not the focus of the story; even the Right Stuff astronauts appear as only very minor supporting characters. And what victory comes from their awakening to the everyday sting of racism has zilch to do with their own personal development — the movie hasn’t the slightest bit of concern for their perspectives — and everything to do with how it represents the voices and experiences of black women being heard, really heard, at long last.
And therein lies the beauty of Hidden Figures: it’s about real women facing real challenges, living their own lives on their own terms, centered as the heroes of their own stories. This shouldn’t be a rarity! This is a hugely entertaining movie, but it’s also an important one and a necessary one, not just for beginning to right the wrongs of the past and to correct the omissions of history, but because what it depicts hasn’t changed all that much in the half century since. All women and black women especially still face so many obstacles getting into and remaining in STEM careers. Women of all colors have lacked obvious, public role models to encourage them to pursue their interests in science and math and the space program… or even to just not feel so alone in enjoying geeky things as a hobby. Perhaps, finally, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson can begin to serve in those roles in a way that everyone can see.