Hollywood loves a good nerd-scribbling-feverishly-on-chalkboard scene. Better if the nerd is white, male, a bit of an asshole, and tragically misunderstood. It makes the math interesting if the mathematician is an exceptional, twitchy, socially awkward lone-wolf type. Or so the unimaginative trope goes.
Hidden Figures bucks the trend. An adaptation of Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction book by the same title, Hidden Figures dramatizes the history of three black women — mathematician Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), aerospace engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), and computer scientist Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) — who were instrumental to NASA’s 1960s space race. While there are many scenes of nerds scribbling on chalkboards — in this case, it’s Katherine — this is a different kind of genius than what we’re used to seeing onscreen. These are extraordinary women, but they’re ordinary too. By gracefully side-stepping the mythic great-man fantasy that Hollywood loves to fawn over, Hidden Figures paints its heroines not as women of singular inaccessible genius, but as a small sampling of many masterminds yet to be unearthed.
Computers used to be people — often women, though the hyper-masculine 21st century industry of computer science would like you to ignore this — not machines. Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy drive through the brightly-lit, crookedly-policed Virginia backroads to their jobs as computers in a segregated division at NASA. Considering that protests, civil unrest, and the looming threat of Russia are no longer enough indication that you’re watching a Cold War-era movie, it’s the film’s bright sixties-era costumes that betray the time period.
While Katherine, Dorothy and Mary enjoy their work, it’s clear their talents are criminally underserved in their current job posts. Meanwhile in the highest echelons of NASA, upper management is sweating. After Russia successfully launches a satellite, the pressure to send an astronaut into space mounts. The Space Task Group led by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) swallows their pride and hires Katherine for her expertise in analytic geometry. Her white colleagues immediately hand her a wastebasket, assuming she’s the janitor.
Katherine finds that her biggest challenges come not from the geometry, but from the prickly resentment of her white colleagues, like head engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons). One of the central conflicts of the film focuses on a bathroom, a coffeepot, a string of pearls (or lack thereof) — symbols which might disappear into the background for most people, but are symbolic of how the minutiae of everyday life are not so minute when you’re the only person of color in the room. Hidden Figures makes plain America’s greatest shortcoming during this fraught time period — while striving for global excellence, it was being defeated not by the Russians’ greater intellect or effort, but by their own prejudiced Achilles’s heel. While the three leads of Hidden Figures succeed, the film also asks us to imagine how much farther we might have come if we let go of our old-fashioned preconception that geniuses have to look like Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory.
Hidden Figures also brilliantly teases out the sneakier forms of racism that are more difficult to dramatize. For Mary Jackson, an aspiring engineer, she can’t be pursue her dream at NASA because she needs a more specific degree. But she can’t get that degree because the only school that teaches engineering is an all-white night school. Meanwhile, Dorothy Vaughan faces the inevitability of a lay off as the scientists come closer and closer to completing the IBM machine, which would render her and her colleagues in the Colored Computers department redundant. This racism is covert and insidious, making it easier for its perpetrators to point fingers at the impenetrable labyrinths of bureaucracy instead of their own ideological shortcomings. These injustices are microaggressive — they exist in the banal seams of everyday. Just because they’re not burning down black churches or treating lynching like public theater doesn’t mean they’re not racist. Hidden Figures portrays many shades of racism. The white supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) believes she’s innocently abiding by the “way things are.” Paul Stafford takes the sole credit for all of Katherine’s contributions to the Space Task Group. Al Harrison, though an eventual ally, is racist by way of oversight — he simply is unaware of the discrimination within his very walls. It is not until a thunderous indictment from Katherine herself that Harrison wakes up to the prejudice happening inside the institution he considers to be the apex of progress.
It’s up to Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy to make their workplace match their talents. As Katherine, Henson is a world away from the formidable Cookie Lyon, though there are still splashes of her iron will in Katherine. But for the most part, unlike the egotistical male geniuses of Hollywood yore, the women of Hidden Figures don’t need to show off. Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy with quiet dignity, and Janelle Monáe brings guts and comic relief to her performance as Mary Jackson. Katherine may be uncomfortable as the sole black woman in the room, but she’s confident in her math — and the film is confident too. It eschews any bloated extravagance, proving that with a strong narrative, simple storytelling is enough.
Hidden Figures is about injustice, but it is also filled with joy, levity, and music. Peppered throughout the film are scenes of festive family gatherings, tipsy girls’ nights, and even a sweet sideline romance with army veteran Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), who Katherine ultimately marries. The film is irresistible uplift theatre — a vital, crowd-pleasing underdog story of real women who braved an impossible time, and a beacon of hope for the women and men today who are braving another.