I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed Hidden Figures. I absolutely adore this film. Nominated for Best Picture at the 89th Academy Awards, while the other Oscar nominations emit the same dramatic tone, Hidden Figures is one that rises above it with a positive and uplifting accomplishment in filmmaking.
“Every time we get a chance to get ahead they move the finish line. Every time.” – Mary Jackson
Sometimes it’s hard to imagine the world we live in now. It feels like a regression, an “us vs. them” mentality. But imagine a time not so long ago where segregation was a demeaning law where blacks and whites were separated in every form of life. Now imagine being an African-American and your contribution played a significant part in world history. Now snapped yourself out of that imagination and realise that was an actual reality!
This is what in essence Hidden Figures is about. It’s the story of Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), three African-American women and mathematicians who played a significant and vital role in the early achievements of the US Space program for NASA.
The most compounding element about this film is simple…
How come I’ve never heard about this story?
In some respects I felt ashamed and ignorant not knowing and I’m sure I’m not the only one. If you look back through history there are other examples. Garrett Morgan, an inventor and entrepreneur is accredited with creating the traffic light in the United States. Dr. Daniel Hale Williams performed the first successful open heart surgery. When I was growing up, these examples I learnt for myself from reading books in a library. It didn’t come from a school curriculum! Even back then I was asking that important question. While these examples filter through our personal endeavours and the notable contributions from Black History Month, the feeling of African-Americans being obscured, not regularly made aware of or written out of historical achievements is a sad and unforgiving affair.
The great thing about Hidden Figures is that it doesn’t punish you for not knowing the history. It takes you back to school and educates you. Its attitude towards segregation and racism is definitely clear but light in approach in comparison to hard hitters like Selma or even 12 Years a Slave. But that doesn’t mean it shies away from the tough topic.
At the end of the day, this is not a film solely about Civil Rights and the humiliating and judgemental obstacles that Katherine, Dorothy and Mary suffered. It’s evidently clear the amount of hoop jumping and the extra curriculum proactiveness they had to go through just to prove worthy of their roles. This film is a celebration of their historic achievements. It is the celebration of their brilliant minds in a comparison age where we now take technology for granted. The monumental work they achieved, the mathematical calculation to get rockets into space was done by hand, prior to the introduction of computers which makes the achievement extraordinary.
But the threat of computers still lingered as Hidden Figures demonstrates. It is the future. Set in the early 60s at the height of the Cold War, the US were embroiled in a space race with the Soviet Union. They were under pressure, forced to step up their game due to the rapid development of the Soviet Space Program. The Soviets had launched the Sputnik 1 satellite and Yuri Gagarin became the first human to journey into outer space. The introduction of the IBM computers – giant, monolithic and impersonal machines full of wires, switches and buttons became a desperate measure to even the playing field.
The progression of computers had a knock on effect – its introduction threatened to remove “human computers” from their roles which coincidentally were coloured females. In what I would call a subtle performance by Octavia Spencer, as Dorothy Vaughan she takes it upon herself showcasing supervisory and managerial material by making sure her department was covered and re-skilled for the change, thus making her colleagues indispensable. This is despite seeking official promotion for herself to be supervisor but told there was no position for her despite doing everything that was required for the role.
It’s moments like this where segregation and racism rears its ugly head. Because of the colour of their skin, black women were looked upon as second class citizens with no value, rights, impact or worth. That demeaning expansion of segregation in the workplace became a restrictive boundary from separate bathrooms, separate lines when greeting the NASA space astronauts, separate campuses, redacted information on classified reports to even something ridiculously trivial as separate coffee pots. Sometimes it’s hard to come to terms with how that world use to be and there are examples within the film of people re-enforcing that belief and structure.
However this illustration refused to enter their mindset. They didn’t let segregation stop them from achieving their dreams and their goals. Watching that unfold, Hidden Figures became an inspiration.
“I will have you know, I was the first negro female student at West Virginia university graduate school. On any given day, I analyze the binomial levels air displacement, friction and velocity. And compute over ten thousand calculations by cosine, square root and lately analytic geometry. By hand. There are twenty, bright, highly capable negro women in the west computing group, and we’re proud to be doing our part for the country. So yes, they let women do some things at NASA, Mr. Johnson. And it’s not because we wear skirts. It’s because we wear glasses. Have a good day.” – Katherine G. Johnson
The other empowering and inspirational thing about Hidden Figures is the representation on the attitudes of women. Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) is our introduction to that current gender conformity. As she escorts Katherine to her new assignment, she informs her of the strict dress code which must be adhered to.
With Katherine and Mary, their struggle is the fight for recognition. They work in a white and male-dominated arena and they have to fight against that prejudice and fear on both fronts. So strong and passionate in their beliefs, they’re not afraid to correct male dominated thoughts. In a brilliant scene involving Katherine and her future husband to be, Colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), she challenges him on the perception of women and his underestimation on what they’re capable of. When Katherine finds herself in an integral position where her calculations are forming into realistic ambitions and targets, she had to fight for her name to be accredited on documents which led to constant conflicts with Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) aka Sheldon Cooper of the 60s.
The truth is, they’re not incompetent and certainly more than just the dress code. These women are highly talented and smart as their male counterparts. Mary, Katherine and Dorothy broke barriers by pushing themselves to be heard and respected. Characters like John Glenn (Glen Powell) and Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) are empathetic to their cause.
If there’s an achievement that Hidden Figures fully recognises and understands is that regardless of race or gender, when you put your differences aside and collectively work together for the same goal, you can achieve the impossible. President Kennedy said it best – “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.” Yes it highlights the enormous ambitions to save the NASA space program in light of the Soviet advancement but it defines a collective ideology, one that asks for everyone to contribute in order to dream big. It echoes and relates to Kennedy’s other famous quotation – “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” If anything defines the curiosity and humanity of space travel, when rockets are launched into space and we’re praying for its safe return, the whole world is watching.
Hidden Figures represents that cause with a positivity and a sense of accomplishment, driven by the work of Dorothy, Mary and Katherine. It’s not just about problems, it’s about finding solutions to those problems. Thanks to director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent), the end product might be slightly clichéd or simplistic for dramatic sakes but Hidden Figures oozes a charm that’s infectious. The talented on-screen ensemble of Taraji, Octavia and Janelle are captured beautifully, tackling the never-ending struggles whilst highlighting the bigger picture and becoming the epicentre of change.
I’m thankful for this film existing otherwise they would still be living as the title of this film suggests. It’s a story that needed to be told and celebrated – a celebration of brilliant minds that we should all be proud of, now and forever.
Your gift and talents should never hold you back. There’s no question about it – this is a day one blu-ray purchase for me.