Progress comes in many forms, both self-evident and obscure.
For every grand act of public heroism or defiance that makes it into the history books, seeking to set up a new beachhead of progression, there are million moments of quiet, often unacknowledged toil; individually chipping away at the bedrock of prejudice.
Hidden Figures tells the real-life stories of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), three black women who made their mark at NASA in 1961; three years before the end of segregation even. Friends and colleagues, and part of a wider pool of black female mathematicians at the Langley Research Centre, they each played a crucial role in one of the defining events of the 20th Century: putting American astronaut John Glenn into orbit.
Directed by St. Vincent’s Theodore Melfi, the film, based on a best-selling nonfiction novel by Mary Lee Shetterley, is shamelessly empowering and entertaining. Even repeated scenes of Katherine hurrying to the black-female toilet in another building block have a verve to them – set to Pharrell Williams oh-so-catchy Runnin’.
Katherine, our de facto protagonist, is a speccy wallflower who finds new depths of determination as the only black, female “computer” in the Space Task Group. On her first day, she distractedly pours herself a cup of coffee from the communal canteen; the next day, she comes in to find a ‘Coloured’ coffee pot — empty, of course.
This hostile indifference is embodied in the form of head engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), who seethes with resentment at Katherine’s present; unlike The Big Bang Theory, though, he’s not the smartest person in the room. Only the team director, the no-nonsense Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) makes things workable. With his crew-cut, his permanent wad of gum, and plainspoken attitude, he’d be in danger of falling into the white saviour archetype — he even takes a crowbar to the sign above the ‘Coloured’ bathroom — did the film’s script, written by Melfi and Allison Schroeder, not present this as essentially self-interested. With fears of the Russia’s putting nuclear warheads into space, Harrison simply doesn’t have time for anything that will slow them down.
Racism, as exists in Hidden Figures, is less endemic than systemic. Dorothy endures having the responsibilities of a supervisor without the title or the pay, because, as her own supervisor, the brusque Vivian (Kirsten Dunst), says, “That’s just the way things are”. Protests are going on out in the streets, but within the walls of NASA, the biggest obstacle are the calcified attitudes; even as they’re knocking down walls the install the new IBM computers that threaten to put all the “computers” out of a job.
You hardly notice the lack of racial invective; what’s on screen is all that more insidious. Similarly, the film avoids evoking the cliche of troubles on the home-front. Katherine’s love interest and future husband Jim Johnson (Oscar-nominated person Mr. Mahershala Ali; managing to be simultaneously wry, sincere, and charming) puts his foot in his mouth on the subject of female mathematicians.
Mary’s fight for the right to study for an engineering degree, meanwhile, takes her all the way to court, where she appeals to the judge to set a precedent. “Out of all the cases you hear today, which one is gonna matter a hundred years from now?”
Hidden Figures may not be that film, but as a depiction of three women who, through sheer brilliance and hard work, made both themselves and the numbers visible. Its trajectory may be obvious, but the fact it stays the course is, in itself, remarkable.