The Reel Critic: “Hidden Figures”

By Will DiGravio, News Editor

“Hidden Figures” takes place in 1961, in the midst of the Space Race and at the outset of the Kennedy Administration’s plan to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

Directed by Theodore Melfi (who wrote the script with Allison Schroeder), the film tells the true story of three black women who work as mathematicians or “computers” at NASA, where they are outsourced to various departments to check the calculations of the agency’s male engineers. While the women are brilliant and well-educated, Jim Crow laws and the bigotry of their colleagues serve as barriers to their advancement and acceptance at the agency.

Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) is assigned to work alongside Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa), a lead engineer who sees Mary’s potential and encourages her to apply to NASA’s engineer training program. Mary, however, is unable to apply after she discovers a new rule requiring her to take extra courses at an all-white high school, even though she has a B.S. in mathematics like most engineers.

Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), faces similar discrimination. After the boss of the so called “colored computers” gets fired, Dorothy steps in and assumes the responsibilities of a supervisor. When she approaches her boss (Kirsten Dunst) and asks to be officially promoted and compensated for her work, she is refused.

Were it not for the prejudices of their superiors, Mary could be NASA’s first black, female engineer, and Dorothy could be the agency’s first black, female supervisor. As Mary puts it, “Every time we get a chance to get ahead they move the finish line.”

The main character is Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji Henson), a mathematical genius who is assigned to the Space Task Group, a group of engineers lead by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and charged with sending the Mercury Seven astronauts — John Glenn, Alan Shephard, et al — into space. Katherine is responsible for checking the work of Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), the group’s chief engineer who treats her poorly and classifies his calculations to make her job impossible.

The racism portrayed in the film is not violent. NASA employees do not use slurs, assault black employees, or exhibit any major hostility. Instead, the racism is habitual. It comes through in their facial expressions, instincts, and inability to recognize that their black colleagues have something to contribute and may know more than they do. The film explores institutional racism and how easily it is perpetuated and normalized.

In the building where Katherine works, there is no bathroom for black women, thus she is forced to walk a half mile to the nearest restroom. One rainy day, it takes Katherine forty minutes to relieve herself. When she returns, Al — unaware that there is no bathroom for her to use in the building— angrily questions Katherine in front of her coworkers. Exhausted and frustrated, Katherine alerts him to the problem and demands to know why her coworkers refuse to treat her like a human being. After this exchange, Al desegregates the bathrooms, begins to treat Katherine better, and reminds everyone, “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color.”

“Hidden Figures” captures the tension and frustration of the Space Race and in particular, the frustration of the black women whose skill and help were routinely rejected. By exploring the struggle for civil rights through the lens of one of the nation’s most prestigious government agencies, the film showcases not only the immorality of segregation, but the stupidity and loss of not putting brilliant minds to work.

After several frustrating months, Katherine realizes that the current crop of mathematicians and engineers aren’t up to the task, and, after finding a way to see Stafford’s classified data, develops a formula to help send Alan Shephard into space. This causes Al to realize that Katherine is the mathematician he has been looking for, the one who looks, as he says, “beyond the numbers.”

Mary, after winning a lawsuit against the state of Virginia, takes courses at the all-white high school and becomes NASA’s first black, female engineer. And after NASA buys their first IBM computer, Dorothy, realizing that it is the technology of the future, learns Fortran and teachers her team how to use the new technology. She ends up becoming NASA’s first black, female supervisor, and a computer pioneer.

Al begins to give Katherine more responsibilities, eventually enlisting her help to calculate the coordinates that will guide John Glenn (Glen Powell) home after he orbits Earth. While he certainly helps Katherine, Al is not a white savior. She, and the other women in the film, earn and push for every opportunity they are given. They take chance and, in the end, are heroes.

“Hidden Figures” is an uplifting, empowering film about black women who refuse to be passive or let anyone else determine their destinies.

The stories of Mary, Dorothy, and Katherine blend the fight for equality with the fight for space, illustrating that social progress and scientific discovery are one in the same. Though “Hidden Figures” takes place in the past, it is very much a story about how to fight for, find a place in, and never lose sight of the future.

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