Movies · Reviews

‘Hidden Figures’ Shines a Long Overdue Spotlight

Three Black women changed American history but their story is just one of many waiting to be told.
Hidden Figures
Twentieth Century Fox
By  · Published on January 6th, 2017

After a successful limited release run beginning on Christmas, Hidden Figures finally expands into theaters across the country on Friday, bringing audiences a must-see biopic that champions the intellectual fortitude and resilience of three incredible Black women. At its core, Hidden Figures is a feel-good story about how the work of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan helped NASA’s Space Program successfully launch John Glenn into space. But beyond this, it is also a timely reminder that Black women are a vital and substantial part of the backbone of America, and their achievements have time and time again helped us accomplish the impossible as a nation.

Our introduction to Dorothy (Octavia Spencer), Mary (Janelle Monáe), and Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) come via the side of a dirt road in Virginia, as the three women are attempting to restart their broken-down car. In the distance, a police car starts heading towards them and the women ready themselves; they know that they’ll be questioned rather than offered help due to the color of their skin. And indeed, the officer comments on where the women’s car had broken down which Mary rightfully points out was not exactly a choice. After examining their NASA ID badges, the officer’s demeanor shifts from suspicion to incredulity, marveling that the women are working on the space program. It’s the first of many scenes that interweave racism and sexism, intersectionality that is an important part of understanding the great odds these women battled against. In the end, the officer offers the women a police escort to work but the stage has already been set for what is to come.

Once at NASA, we dive into the world of the West Area Computers, a segregated department of female mathematicians known as “computers,” who were lent out to departments to perform calculations and analysis as needed. The department is managed by Dorothy but as we soon discover she is only ceremonially performing these duties, receiving neither the pay nor title of manager in return. When she confronts the head of personnel, Mrs. Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), regarding her request to be promoted she is quickly dismissed and told there isn’t a need for a manager due to the introduction of IBM computers, which will soon be able to process calculations at lightning speed making the West Area group obsolete. But rather than be deterred, Dorothy focuses on ways to ensure that both herself and her computing pool remain vital to NASA.

In the meantime, Mary has been assigned to the engineers working on the capsule that would eventually launch John Glenn (Glen Powell) into orbit, ensuring that the capsule can endure the strains of being catapulted into space and back. Although she is incredibly gifted and a vital part of the team, Mary questions her ability to become an engineer because she is a Black woman. But she is encouraged by her co-worker, a Polish Jew who has survived the Holocaust, to believe in what seems improbable, since they are working on achieving the impossible at NASA.

As Mary and Dorothy battle their own obstacles at NASA, we focus on Katherine, a brilliant child prodigy and widowed mother of two who is sent to be the computer for Project Mercury, double-checking the calculations and trajectories proposed for launching Alan Shepard into space and eventually sending John Glenn into orbit. Despite her qualifications, Katherine is met with skepticism and disdain by the group of men, especially Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), who resents having his work double-checked and spitefully redacts information to make Katherine’s job more difficult. In addition to this, her male peers refuse to drink from the same coffee pot, and Ruth (Kimberly Quinn), the group’s secretary, refuses to help Katherine find a bathroom, forcing her to run across the NASA campus to West Area Computers each day – a forty-minute trek – just to use the “appropriate” toilet.

The stakes are high for NASA, who are lagging behind Russia in the space race and feeling pressure from President Kennedy, who is pushing for Americans to be the first country to land on the moon. Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) admits that while they know the math needed to put John Glenn into orbit, the math to bring him back to Earth doesn’t exist. But like Mary and Dorothy, Katherine is able to turn this obstacle into a window of opportunity, helping America achieve the impossible. Taraji P. Henson shines as Katherine, whose enormous talent is never cold or alienating but a wonder to behold, as she passionately dives into the problems set before her. Our taste of Katherine’s personal life, through her friendships with Mary and Dorothy, her relationship with her daughters and her romance and eventual marriage to Colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), truly gives us a three-dimensional taste of who Katherine Johnson is, giving us insight into what fueled her passions and what kept her striving against such enormous odds.

Although Hidden Figures feels formulaic at times, it is buoyed by great music and a stellar supporting cast. Jim Parsons is able to flesh out Stafford without falling back on his Sheldon persona, bringing the character from petulant to begrudgingly respectful of Katherine in time. Glen Powell, fresh off a successful turn as the charismatic Finn in Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!, rivals Chris Evans’ Captain America for most charming and woke hero, bringing John Glenn to the big screen once again and making the real-life hero’s loss in late 2016 feel even greater. But most of all, it is Janelle Monáe who dazzles as the talented and highly-driven Mary Jackson. Monáe has already had a successful career as a Grammy-nominated singer and phenomenal dancer but her superb acting in 2016 has made her stand out as a reminder of the Hollywood idolized (but conspicuously absent) in La La Land, a trifecta of rare talent cherished in legends like Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, and the recently deceased Debbie Reynolds.

The true strength of Hidden Figures lies not only in the eventual success each woman finds but also in exposing how America’s own senseless discrimination nearly held the country back from both progress and astonishing accomplishments. Midway through the film, after Katherine has run to the bathroom for the hundredth time after Mary has discovered new requirements keeping her from an engineering career and after Dorothy is kicked out the library for wanting a book not explicitly in the “Colored” section, the limitations imposed by the racism of the day feel exhausting, as they damn well should. Beyond this, there is also the absence of intersectionality from white women such as Mrs. Mitchell and Ruth. Mary, Katherine, and Dorothy truly had to fight alone, without the help of their white female peers, who did not see the struggle against sexism as one that could be fought together. As these women fight two battles at once, we feel each injustice done to them because of their sex and the color of their skin, which not only makes their triumph sweeter but that much awe-inspiring. While we can feel just how great the odds they have overcome are, it also serves as a timely reminder of how we might hold ourselves back in the future.

Of course, Hidden Figures is just a small slice of the accomplishments that Black women have achieved throughout our history, far too often without acknowledgment, accolades, or gratitude. Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson represent a multitude of Black women who have stood in the shadows and pushed our country to greater heights. But with the film’s inevitable success should come the acknowledgment that these are stories that audiences crave, ones where Black women can finally take the spotlight and give us even more heroines to root for.

Jamie Righetti is an author and freelance film critic from New York City. She loves horror movies, Keanu Reeves, BioShock and her Siberian Husky, Nugget.