Hidden Figures Movie Review
Hidden Figures Movie Review Metadata
Whatever you’re expecting walking into Hidden Figures – put it in a box, bury it in the backyard, and seal the hole with cement. The impossible times of the 1960s in terms of race and technology bring a little light-handed, warm-hearted history to the big screen.
Even before computers and even calculators, there existed theoretical mathematics. It was the magic that convinced humans we weren’t the center of the universe, that the lights in the sky weren’t angels, and we could travel to the stars and back. Some of that magical math was done by women without the benefit of computers. In the 1960s NASA had not only a secretarial pool, but a Human Computer Pool – brilliant minds on loan to various departments for additional figuring and calculations. Because of the segregation still in place, there was also a Colored Computer Pool. These conditions weren’t as cheery, their bathrooms were in other buildings, but their minds were needed and that made them very valuable.
Adapted from the biography, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly (William Morrow/Harper Collins, 2016), we follow the interconnected lives of the segregated West Area Computing Unit of the NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson, CBS’s Person of Interest) is a widowed mother whose brains are an amazing piece of equipment and perfect for the theoretical gymnastics of Space! Science! Unlike other movies about wicked smart people, she’s not alienated because of her brains – other than the Jim Crow division. She works hard, has friends, and has a family. Other than the death of her husband, which makes her appropriately sad, her life is rolling along. Smarty people as function members of society? Yes, this is a movie worth talking about.
Katherine is loaned out to the Space Task Group, lead by director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner, Black or White (2014)). They’re responsible for the math that will not only launch US astronauts into space, but bring them successfully down again. Within the Space Group, we see intersectionality and microaggressions that go beyond being rude and unfriendly. It’s not portrayed as open hostility, because these are educated people and they should know better. On her first day, she’s handed a waste paper basket and told they weren’t emptied the night before. She’s given a “COLORED” coffee pot that never has coffee. She double checks all of lead Engineer Paul Stafford’s (Jim Parsons, CBS’s Big Bang Theory) numbers and figures and even does the actual math, but he refuses to allow her name on the reports. “Computers don’t write reports,” he says, even though she literally writes the reports.
Her friends, Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer, Fox’s Red Band Society) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae, Moonlight (2016)) have their own battles. Dorothy Vaughn is acting supervisor of the Colored Computer Pool, but bears neither the title nor the pay. Her supervisor, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia (2011)) reinforces this lack of respect by addressing her by her first name. It seems like a small thing, but in the South, you only refer to the help by their first names. Mary Jackson is assigned to the Mercury capsule and has the knowledge and the drive to become an engineer, just not the paper. Coming by that in Segregated Virginia will take more than just sass and drive, but she has the eventual support of her husband and Holocaust-surviving supervisor. All of this to say, these are not broken women. These women have healthy relationships and jobs. They laugh and love, they worship and thrive – at least thrive as much as black woman are allowed in the South in the 1950s. They are black women who have the nerve to be successful as black women.
But you know what I really liked about Hidden Figures? There is no husband/child in the fridge moment, no wailing “they shot my baby” moments. You already know there is racial strife and segregation, and black women are treated less like people and more like things to be loaned out like library books. This movie doesn’t insult you with images of riots or beatings to get you to understand things were bad for black women in the 50s and 60s. You’re allowed to get angry and you’re allowed to laugh, and you’re allowed to be outraged and you’re allowed to love these characters as they get angry and laugh and outraged and love. This is fun without being dumbed down.
Do you know how rare that is? To see a movie about beautiful, educated black women who are just trying to make a way for their families, and none of their adversity has anything to do with being beaten by spouses or boyfriends? Not once do the police have to be called. There are no dogs. There is no language.
Am I making this movie about race? Of course I am. This is after all a movie about race and its place in America’s past along side The Right Stuff (1983). It’s about quiet determination and professional protests. It’s about having your friends and family to lean on and help up and stand beside.
Hidden Figures is rated PG for a little bit of language and dramatic tension.