Feministing Films: “Hidden Figures”

So many movies about craft—whether that’s acting, painting, dancing, writing, singing, or scholarship—justify the passions of their protagonists with an appeal to grandeur. As for “Hidden Figures,” a recent domestic and international box-office and hit, the title is an obvious double entendre where math and human legacy are interwoven. But, in this case, the audience is not asked to suspend disbelief to consider a maligned but persevering Matt Damon (“Good Will Hunting”), Russell Crowe (“A Beautiful Mind”), or Gwyneth Paltrow (“Proof”). Instead, we are to be told the story of three black women — a mathematician, an engineer, and a programmer — who did crucial work at the NASA space program in segregated 1960s Virginia. It’s a story that hasn’t been told in Hollywood or elsewhere—three brilliant black women heroines make essential contributions to science and their country. And the story’s true.

The film begins with flashbacks of a young Katherine Goble (played, as an adult, by Taraji P. Henson), who is recommended to skip two grades and attend the best Negro junior high in West Virginia. Katherine is a gifted mathematical thinker, and is prone to daydreaming and the kind of faraway looks that signal a quiet intensity and an open-ended intelligence. We jump forward to 1961, and Goble is now in her forties, gazing out of the window of a broken down car on the side of the road. With Katherine are her colleagues at the NASA space program, the stern and tenacious yet caring Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), a gifted leader and handy mechanic, and the saucy, unsubtle Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), who has a talent for solving engineering-based problems, even though she has no advanced degree in the field. All three are trained in mathematics and work as “computers” doing calculations for various departments at NASA on an assignment-by-assignment basis. Which is to say, none of their jobs are guaranteed.

The women are cordoned off to a “colored” wing of NASA where only black women work and are visited from time to time by an icy, disapproving, and ultimately racist supervisor, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), who hands out assignments from the headquarters. The film deals with the ins and outs of both overt and more casual racism and sexism. In one scene, Miss Mitchell, offering an olive branch to Dorothy, says, “You know, I have nothing against y’all.” Dorothy, on her way out of the recently desegregated women’s bathroom turns around and smiles. “I know you believe you don’t.” The moment exceeded my expectations of what a mainstream film could achieve in addressing anti-black racism amongst white women and the ways in which gender does not simply cut across race lines, but how race permeates ever facet of society, often making the true terms of kinship plain.

The film also digs impressively into each woman’s intelligence and ambition. Dorothy teaches herself Fortran, an early programming language, in order to take on the coding of NASA’s first IBM computer and secure lasting jobs for her cohort, which stands to be replaced by the speed and efficiency of actual computers. Mary goes to court to secure her enrollment at a still-segregated whites-only high school, the only place she can take the necessary advanced courses to become a NASA engineer. Her husband, who is self-righteously political and suspicious of governmental (read: white) institutions like NASA, struggles to accept her ambition as a form of activism. Henson plays Katherine with the familiar moon-eyed awkwardness of movie geniuses, but she’s also a widow with three children and an encouraging, sentimental mother who watches them while Katherine works day and night to come up with the math that will propel a spacecraft into orbit and bring it safely back to earth.

“Hidden Figures” also makes sure to show how these black women geniuses are loved romantically. While Mary and her husband often disagree on the methods necessary to achieve liberation, they support and comfort each other through their most difficult moments. Katherine meets army officer Jim Johnson (the ubiquitous Mahershala Ali) whom she initially rebuffs for daring to ask if mathematics is too “taxing” of a career path for a woman. In time, they fall in love, not on the condition that she accept his ignorance, but that he unlearn it. And there’s a brief, fantastic moment where we see Dorothy dancing with her husband at a party; they are blissfully in sync, bathed by warm light in the center of the room, intimate yet surrounded. Scenes like these are rare for black woman characters on screen: tenderness, ease, and warmth are often thought to be beyond black women, who are usually depicted in movies as brash, indignant, and righteous in their romantic relationships. But in “Hidden Figures,” Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary are not only exceptional, they are also complex, and so they are regular too. They love and are loved in ways we can recognize, which include anger and righteousness, but also vulnerability and care.

However, while the book from which the film was adapted was written by Margaret Lee Shetterly — a black woman from Virginia whose father worked as a research scientist at NASA — both director Theodore Melfi and his co-screenwriter Allison Schroeder are white. It’s not surprising, then, that the film deals in moments of white benevolence. Katherine’s boss, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner, who, as seen in “Dances With Wolves” and “Black or White,” loves to play the one enlightened white man in a sea of slack-jawed bigots), is depicted as a man who miraculously fails to notice that Katherine is black, and personally de-segregates the NASA bathrooms when he learns that she has to run half a mile and back to get to the only colored women’s toilet on the grounds. And in a down-to-the-wire moment, a cartoonishly handsome white astronaut personally requests that Katherine verify the coordinates of his landing. He wants “the girl” to check, he says. It’s a too-easy escape for a host of white characters who were born and bred in the Jim Crow South. That even the most kind-hearted characters don’t contend with inherited prejudice or with their complicity in the racism that their black colleagues must fight against is incredible — and unbelievable.

Luckily, the film ultimately insists on Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary as the protagonists and the fighters, and doesn’t hide the specificity of their experiences as black women underneath a creed of universal goodness. It’s their brilliance, tenacity, and imaginations that win the day. White people can’t quite keep up.

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Cassie da Costa is a writer who focuses on moving image and performance. She's based in Brooklyn and works as a member of The New Yorker's editorial staff while also producing the magazine's video podcast, The Front Row, featuring film critic Richard Brody.

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