Hoping to get a look a couple weeks in advance of its December 25 release date, I made a few calls earlier that day to try and get on the list. Luckily, there was some last minute availability and I managed to get a seat in the large Times Square theater dedicated to the screening. A group of young women at the door lined up behind a table where we waited to have our names crossed off and be handed our tickets. Inside the theater was an eager crowd of mostly young black women waiting with bated breath to see the big screen adaptation of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book about the black women who made NASA’s rockets fly.
“Hidden Figures” is the story of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson. Ever heard of them? Probably not. But NASA would never have gotten John Glenn into orbit, and later put Neil Armstrong on the moon, without them.
The three women work together in NASA’s segregated “West Computing Group,” where they are “calculators” doing the mathematical work that the fancy new IBM computer will soon do for them in a fraction of the time. But while NASA figures out how to get that massive computer in the door, let alone up and running, Vaughan, Jackson, and Johnson must work to beat the Soviets to space while navigating the overlap between racism and misogyny.
“Hidden Figures” does many things well, but it tackles intersectionality with an uncompromising hand that fans of projects like “Suffragette” should note. The women face patronizing incredulity from black men, icy condescension from white women, and outright scorn from white men. The individual characters do vary: Kevin Costner’s character wastes little time in recognizing Johnson for her extraordinary mind, and Mahershala Ali and Aldis Hodge need only a little chastising before offering their wives their full faith and support.
(It is noteworthy that “Hidden Figures” never asks its heroines to choose between their brains and their hearts.)
Even the white women, who, in a timely reflection of their future counterparts, cling to their racial privilege instead of bridging the gap between themselves and the West Computing Group, eventually offer their respect and acknowledgment.
But, as was discussed in an excellent post-screening panel discussion led by Melissa Harris Perry, there is a line between depicting the importance of shedding privilege and heaping praise on privileged people who finally decide to step up. Costner’s character in particular (as well as Glen Powell’s John Glenn) has more than one scene where he plays not quite the white savior but an authority figure who, despite his gruff exterior, is downright syrupy in his benevolence. In one particularly heavy handed scene, which can be sampled in one of the trailers, he beats down a “Colored Ladies Room” sign with a crowbar. It makes for a powerful scene, one that elicited applause in the theater, but this can’t be Costner’s story. The white male crowbar-wielders of the world can’t be put on pedestals for not using those crowbars to beat everyone else down.
For the most part “Hidden Figures” understands that despite how gratifying it is to hear John Glenn insist on having “the smart girl” in the room during his mission, the story belongs to all those smart girls and not to him. The movie’s warm, hopeful tone, with its bright costumes, Pharrell music, and magical shots of space, seems only appropriate for a movie that celebrates the friendships between these women. It’s understandable that so many Civil Rights Era movies are dour, but it feels refreshing to see one that honors the figures who fought for change by reveling in their accomplishments. The black women of “Hidden Figures” bring each other up because no one else will. They support each other and believe in each other. Their joy is as boundless as their drive. Left stranded in the West Computing Group building, they find strength and love in each other.
The movie deftly juxtaposes the exciting new frontier of space travel with the crucial frontier of Civil Rights; why is it so hard for a group of white men trying to put a human into orbit around the earth to imagine that a black woman could be a talented mathematician, or a promising engineer, or a computer science whiz? Why can’t the white women, who are underestimated and ignored themselves, imagine that racial bias is as wrong as gender bias?
Vaughan, Jackson and Johnson can imagine all those things very well. It’s their reality. While everyone else grapples to understand that reality, the movie shines when it focuses on their triumphs and showcases their abilities. NASA’s leaps into space are treated with wonder and awe. The very least we could do is give the black women who got us there the same.