‘Hidden Figures’ uplifts unsung heroes

Monday, January 16, 2017 - 10:19pm

NOSELL

20th Century Fox

 

Exiting the movie theater last week, I heard snippets of a conversation about “Hidden Figures.” “I grew up in the same town as her,” a woman said, referring to one of the main characters. “And I didn’t even know that she did that much until later.”

If this tells us anything, it’s that storytelling is powerful. Following Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson, "Empire"), a physicist and mathematician who made seminal contributions to celestial navigation, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe, "The Electric Lady"), NASA’s first black female engineer, and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer, "The Help"), NASA’s first black female supervisor, “Hidden Figures” understands that what goes unsaid is often what says it all.

Despite their college degrees and unparalleled technical capabilities, the women face innumerable barriers, big and small, to succeed as black women in STEM. “If you were a white man, would you want to be an engineer?” a colleague asks Mary.

“I wouldn’t want to be an engineer, because I’d already be one,” she replies. The film outlines just some of the reasons why: A NASA policy requires that all engineers take a specific course only offered by segregated schools. When Katherine joins an all-white team, she is provided a “colored” coffee machine exclusively for her use. She runs half a mile in heels through the parking lot because not a single colored restroom exists in the entire building complex.

Every shot is staged to make the discomfort known. Katherine walks into a sterile sea of white button-downs and black ties. The only color present comes from the cardigans worn by the two women in the room, and her dark skin.

“Hidden Figures” aims to undo superstar culture, splitting hierarchy down to its core and revealing the multitudes of people that really make genius happen. Dorothy says, “progress for one of us is progress for us all,” and it’s evident in the making of the film. While it sheds light on three incredible black women, “Hidden Figures” also pays tribute to the partners, children, churches and role models that empower them. Dorothy doesn’t just aspire to be a supervisor for herself. She stubbornly stands by her girls in the colored computing team to ensure the security of their futures at NASA, refusing to advance if other they can’t advance, too.

The space race contextualizes the civil rights movement within a foreign policy context. While this has a positive effect of categorizing people not by race, but as Americans on equal footing, its unrealistic execution makes it a distraction. With simplistic and unnecessary dialogue, John Glenn’s boyish, Labrador Retriever charm verges on dopey. The highly unrealistic space CGI also takes away from the heartwarming storyline of the women.

Still, it’s a feel-good movie, stuffed with sweeping monologues and snappy comebacks against microaggressions. Though it’s unlikely that every conversation occurred in reality, the film does not sugarcoat how hard black women fough; how hard they still fight today. Instead, the optimism in “Hidden Figures” acts as a voice clapping back against racism, speaking for all people color who cannot speak out for themselves.

Even for viewers, “Hidden Figures” has the power to bring together communities, eliciting the most sniffling I’ve heard in a theater as of late. “C’mon, seriously!” someone muttered from behind me when the door of the command room closed in Octavia’s face. The theater erupted in applause when the supervisor who once actively emphasized her inferiority and lack of belonging passed by her desk and made her a cup of coffee.