Just go and see Hidden Figures right now. Honestly, stop what you are doing and go. There couldn’t be a better time for the U.S. and the world to receive this gift of perseverance and unity in an era of apathy and individualism.
And to top it off, Hidden Figures is just so much fun!
This incredible true story follows three African American women mathematicians working for NASA during the space race. The film is based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction book of the same title. Our three heroes played by Taraji P. Henson (Empire), Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station) and Janelle Monáe (Moonlight) support John Glenn in his historic three-time orbit around the earth by calculating his flight path. They’ve been hired as “human computers” by Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia in an era long before the use of electronic computers.
It’s 1961 and computing the calculations for NASA’s projects is done by hand and is considered secretarial. Secretarial means that this is a job relegated to women. Despite their bright minds, our African American heroes are segregated from their counterparts due to Jim Crow laws. These women were first classified by their gender and then segregated by their race.
I have a complicated relationship with the issues of racial and gender inequality explored in Hidden Figures. I am mixed. I’m so mixed I’m multi-racial. My dad is black and Puerto Rican. My mom is white. This makes me what I call a white-passing WOC – woman of color. I say white-passing because despite my mixed lineage, the world views and treats me as white because of the light color of my skin.
I don’t have to face the daily hurdles that someone with a dark complexion does. Were I smart enough to work at NASA and it was currently the 1960s, I may have worked with the “computers” rather than the “colored computers”. Hidden Figures, although set in another era, reflects the contemporary debates surrounding gender and race. I wonder, how much has changed? How do I fit into this current social, cultural dynamic?
Katherine G. Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, graduated high school at 14 and college at 18 summa cum laude. If you are not already dizzy in love with Taraji P. Henson who plays Cookie in Empire, this is your gateway drug. Her performance perfectly captures the mind boggling smarts and determination of real-life Katherine and hit me right in the heart.
As the only computer with a deep knowledge of analytical geometry, Katherine receives an assignment to calculate flight trajectories for upcoming missions. This new project suddenly makes her the only African American woman on the team.
Due to her new and unusual placement, she’s now forced to run half a mile to use the “colored ladies” room and is given a small designated coffee pot that no one else will touch. For me, this was rage-inducing. Combating that negativity, we are invited to whole-heartedly root and cheer for every late night number crunching session and every mathematical triumph, all underscored by Pharrell Williams’ nostalgic and superb soundtrack. The song “Runnin” perfectly punctuated Katherine’s high heeled shuffling trips to the bathroom.
The Hidden Figures soundtrack which also includes Janelle Monáe, Alicia Keys and Mary J. Blige is now my household listening requirement by the way.
Katherine’s two best friends Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) have worship-worthy stories of their own. Dorothy is lobbying for a title and pay that match the high level of work she is doing while she studies electronic computer programming on the side. Mary progresses her own journey for advancement via the white-only school system in an attempt to become NASA’s first black female engineer. Hell yes.
The movie’s highlights of strength in the face of adversity were as satisfying and entertaining as the soundtrack. One particular moment stands out. Katherine’s boss, played by Kevin Costner (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, The Company Men), clearly doubts her mathematical prowess and begins to ask her to use a certain calculation technique. She interrupts him with more knowledge than he seems to have expected. “Orthonormalization algorithm? Yes, sir. I prefer it over Euclidean Coordinates.”
Despite having no idea what any of that means, it was so fun to laugh while clapping at Katherine’s show of knowledge. The whole theater erupted. It was an amazing feeling of common unity and celebration. A feeling that lasted throughout the entire movie.
Vivian Mitchell, played by Kirsten Dunst (Marie Antoinette), works as a supervisor in the white segment of the computers. While Dorothy does the equivalent job of the black workers, she is given a higher status and paid more. The tension between Vivian and Katherine highlights the divisive subject of women undermining other women in order to succeed. The breakdown of oppressed groups that can’t, won’t or haven’t united for equality could fill many libraries.
But Hidden Figures is as much about unity as it is about racial and gender divide. The characters who join together and do not leave others behind were the most successful in this story. It’s a beautiful picture of what we can achieve as people if we look out for more than ourselves. This is best exemplified in the pivotal moment when Dorothy is finally offered a promotion. She will only accept it if all of her co-workers are able to advance with her.
Dorothy could easily have taken her prize and left all of the others to their own devices but the movie rejects that kind of individualism. In keeping with the movie’s message of strength in community, she has already trained her co-workers in her newly learned computational skills and prepared them for advancement.
Hidden Figures’ heartfelt message sliced through the complications of inequity and offered a story of empathy and unity. Its bold message declares that working together and caring for others is the only way to glory and success. This message is heartening to me. And it’s important – now more than ever. It’s important to share ideas of community and compassion through mass mediums like film and Hidden Figures delivers this in delightful spades. And not only that, it makes math and intellectual pursuit seem like a blast!