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biast | by maryann johanson

Hidden Figures movie review: triumph of the black girl geeks

Hidden Figures green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
The it’s-about-damn-time true story that puts paid to the notion that only white men had the Right Stuff. Often funny, ultimately feel-good, hugely exhilarating.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for stories about women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

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.

It’s impossible to be overenthusiastic about this movie. We simply have not seen anything like it before.
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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 storytweet 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 oddstweet 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.tweet

“Oh, honey, your drawing is really sweet, but Mommy can’t be an astronaut. No black woman will go into space until the 1990s.”

“Oh, honey, your drawing is really sweet, but Mommy can’t be an astronaut. No black woman will go into space until 1992.”tweet

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 momentstweet 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.

“How do I get out of this chickenshit outfit?”

“How do I get out of this chickenshit outfit?”tweet

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.

Hidden Figures makes up for another omission of cinema: the realities of everyday life for African-Americans under segregation.
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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.


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Hidden Figures (2016) | directed by Theodore Melfi
US/Can release: Dec 25 2016
UK/Ire release: Feb 17 2017

MPAA: rated PG for thematic elements and some language
BBFC: rated PG (discrimination theme, mild bad language)

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card (now updated for 2017’s trolls!) you might want to reconsider.

  • Hard Little Machine

    So other than the story this is based on is the movie itself any good? Or does that even matter?

  • Danielm80

    She praised the screenplay and mentioned a few of the performances as noteworthy. She also said, “It’s impossible to be overenthusiastic about this movie.” Was something about her repeated praise for the film unclear, or are you one of those people who just assumes she’s blinded by her “feminist agenda”?

  • Hard Little Machine

    So… it’s a nice story. I said that. Anything else?

  • Did you actually read my review?

  • Hard Little Machine

    yes, you said it was a great story. any technical details? any thoughts on the script or the direction or the production values or the fact that the cast is about 90% black

  • Danielm80

    This quote from Toni Morrison comes to mind, not for the first time this year:

    The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Someone says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.

    http://medievalpoc.tumblr.com/post/90940567178/toni-morrison-the-function-the-very-serious

  • Yes. You really did not read my review. So please stop posting your crap here.

  • John Smith

    The Right Stuff was vastly superior.

  • Why?

  • woobot

    Great review!

  • Calvin Right

    Wish I had a dollar for every time you wrote the words white or black throughout that review. It got a bit tiresome like you were stuck on one track. Ramming the same point home over & over. And please do not delude yourself that white men were not the brains and the driving force behind space travel. In both the soviet union and the US. I imagine you growl everytime you type the words white men.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    If i gave you the $13 would you kindly go crawl back into your cave and never come out again? Or at least promise to never say anything as stupid as this comment?

  • Calvin Right

    Oh Im not down with the racially over sensitive or the ardent feminists so I must live in a cave. Great logic there, Mr pretentious username desperate to seem intelligent.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Nah, it was the abject inanity of the comment, despite an evidently prolific commenting history. Such a shame to talk so much yet think so little.

  • Calvin Right

    Clearly you have zilch to say other than snotty insults. You dont address anything I actually said. What a grubby little pretentious man. As you still have nothing to offer after two godawful posts you can happily be blocked so I dont have to suffer your waffle ever again. You wish you were a doctor. Probably a shelf stacker at walmart. Adios forever. *blocks*

  • No, *you’re* the one who’s blocked, from ever posting comments here again.

  • Rechts

    Do you think this movie will inspire little black girls that there is more to arithmetic than calculating how many illegitimate children a teenager can have to maximize their welfare check each month?

  • AG

    Can I Like this one five times, for each word in “you’re the one who’s blocked?”

  • AG

    I have been on fire to see this movie since they announced it was the *possibility* of a movie. My one concern was too much flyboyism, but it sounds like…no? Stays focused on the nerds? Those of us walking in looking for that full geekout experience will be happy? (I mean, I’m there because if Janelle Monae decides it’s worth her time it is worth my time too, but…look, okay, I’m still traumatized by Jeff Goldblum uploading that virus to the spaceship.)

  • The flyboys barely appear. All the focus is on the black woman nerds.

  • Bluejay

    Finally just saw this, absolutely LOVED it, then got out of the theater and learned about Trump’s fucking Muslim ban. And it got me incredibly angry for all the reasons you’d expect, but also because the movie got me thinking about this:

    Solving any one of our problems is bound up in solving ALL our problems. It’s all connected. Getting to space and to the moon wasn’t just a technical, scientific challenge; it was an educational challenge, making sure we were training up the minds that would launch and pilot those rockets, AND it was a civil rights challenge, the struggle to make sure that skill and talent and intelligence weren’t being overlooked or wasted because someone was deemed too dark-skinned or too female. America’s achievements in the space race were bound up in the liberation and advancement of women, of people of color. Because as Costner’s character says at one point, our job is to find the geniuses among us and let them do their work and take us where we need to go — we all get there together, or not at all. So it’s a bullshit argument that the problems of women, POC, the LGBT community, or anyone else who’s been denied dignity and recognition, are “side issues” that have to wait because we have bigger problems to deal with. We deal with it ALL and we deal with it NOW. Because we all get there together, or not at all.

    A nation — hell, all of humanity — shoots itself in the foot, if not the heart, when it smothers the potential of any group of people, when it keeps throwing roadblocks in the way of them being everything they could be, when it refuses to recognize their dignity and their basic humanity, when it chooses not to lift them up but instead abandons them to their suffering. It’s morally wrong AND it’s incredibly shortsighted. This country has flourished because of the achievements of immigrants and refugees, and of the children of immigrants and refugees. If the ban on Syrians had been enacted decades earlier, Steve Jobs’ father would never have been able to enter the US. Far from making America great, Trump’s outrageous bigotry is ensuring that it may never be again.

  • Tonio Kruger

    I can guess, but I rather not.

  • Tonio Kruger

    I have been interested in this movie for months but for some reason, I really felt the need to see it this weekend after seeing Detroit earlier in the week. It did not disappoint.

    Perhaps because I have a weakness for stories about smart people. Or because my Mexican-born father in his own way was a “first” in his chosen field. (Though, of course, he never worked for NASA.) Or perhaps…

    Anyway, it doesn’t really matter why. I just liked it. The only drawback to the movie that I can see is that it makes me wish we still had a space program.

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