Near the end of Hidden Figures, Katherine Johnson, the mousy, determined human “computer” is tasked with double-checking some questionable last-minute calculations while NASA postpones John Glenn’s attempt to orbit the Earth around seven times. Her pencil is an impressive flash, quick and precise, while the camera closes in on her focused face. She finishes, circles her conclusive number, then leans back in relief, another high-stakes task finished under an insane amount of pressure. It’s at this moment that her friend Mary Jackson gives her a look of incredulity, “Are you taking a break?!”
When you’re a black woman rushing to finish the impossible, breaks waste time. Every action is as important as it is thankless, and whatever pride you’ve earned is pushed to the side as you rush head-first to the next task-at-hand. This sentiment seemed to be at the heart of Hidden Figures, the sense that every incredible accomplishment informed and motivated by the specific racial frustrations of these remarkable colored women are but one in a successive chain of actions fed into the impossible goal of sending a man through space.
Hidden Figures focuses on the lives of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), and Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), members of a pool of colored women “computers”, mathematicians that run the calculations made by NASA’s white higher-ups. What these women have in common, beyond their vocation, workplace and infectious friendship, is an opportunity for advancement beyond their typically narrow options. Katherine is reassigned as the computer for NASA’s Guidance and Navigation department. Mary has the chance to become an Engineer if she can take some extension classes at a segregated High School, and petitions the Virginia State Court for permission to do so. And Dorothy, cognizant of the threat the new IBM computers pose to herself and the other colored women within her department, takes it upon herself to learn about the new technology and teach it to her coworkers.
The glossy, picture-perfect production sheen of Hidden Figures presupposes the typical expectations of racially themed biopics: on-the-nose dialogue referencing the movie’s segregated setting, the slow boil of racially-motivated micro-aggressions culminating in a steam-release monologue of frustration, some cathartic put-downs of white people who don’t know how ignorant they are.
Hidden Figures is somewhat unique, however, because this is a story that has only very recently gained any wide-spread notice. The movie isn’t tracing the path of “great moments” that our parents and grandparents and selective history books all imprint in our minds about those singular minority representatives who seem to transcend race and meld into that “great” socio-cultural zeitgeist. Beyond the success of NASA’s Friendship 7 orbital mission that becomes the movie’s climactic accomplishment, the progression of this movie is new information. This makes Hidden Figures feel surprisingly fresh, even despite the constantly bright and optimistic tone that gives all the happy endings away.
Director Theodore Melfi (who also wrote the script with Allison Schroeder) spends most of the narrative following Katherine around. While her involvement with the Friendship 7 mission puts her closer to the movie’s climactic set-piece, I think the real reason Melfi focuses on Katherine is because he understands one of the real reasons why we go to inspirational biopics like this; we want to watch capable people do things that we can’t do. Dorothy’s understanding of the IBM computers is too technical to dramatize, and the problem with Mary’s courtroom drama is that actual courtroom cases aren’t very fun to watch. But you can watch someone work out math, so there are plenty of scenes with Katherine, chalk-in-hand, laying out dizzying mathematical formulas on high-rise chalkboards and explaining them to us afterwards, and Taraji P. Henson does a great job balancing Katherine’s unabashed personality with the pride she takes in her work and the way that pride boosters her more insistent demands when the need requires it. We don’t understand what she’s saying or doing and don’t need to, because the fun is in watching a black woman on the silver screen slice her chalk around like a sword.
More time is given to the womens’ workplace conflicts than to their personal lives, but their brevity aside, the home-life scenes are fun and touching. A sun-lit church picnic for banter and meet-cutes, a house party of happy and sensual dancers, the noisy bedroom shared by Katherine’s three daughters. These scenes allow Henson, Monae and Spencer to bank on their likeability and charisma in a way that relates us to these brilliant women while giving image to the black communities they live in. The cast of skeptical but supportive husbands, encouraging mothers and understanding children all gear us towards rooting for them to succeed.
Kevin Costner is fun as Al Harrison, the no-nonsense director of the Space Task Group and Katherine’s boss. Exasperated by the implications of losing the space race to the Soviet Union during the paranoia of the Cold War, Harrison is more open to Katherine’s insistence on increasing her role. What separates Harrison from typical white savior characters is the way his decisions are in response to Katherine’s choices to become increasingly investigative and present. His role succeeds because it lies in the recognition and acceptance of Katherine’s talent and hard work, not in insincere credit-taking.
The other white characters are more archetypal: John Glenn (Glenn Powell) is the charming, progressionist astronaut who calls upon Katherine’s help, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) is the sneering white mathematician threatened by Katherine and by extension social development, and Vivian Michael (Kirsten Dunst) is the white woman who thinks that the long-standing administrative structure is what causes her discrimination (though she’d never call it that) when it’s the other way around. They all serve their one-note roles well enough, then get out the way for the celebration at the end.
It’s easy to let the emotionally manipulative Hollywood gloss of a film like this convince us to dismiss it outright. I know for me personally, its more than a little frustrating that before this movie, I knew nothing about the brilliant contributions of these women to the technological race of the Cold War and, by extension, to the establishment of democracy as a dominant form of Western Government. Those frustrations probably have more to do with my skepticism and cynicism than anything else. But Hidden Figures seems to suggest that the best way to deal with those frustrations is to give bright, positive expression to the accomplishments and lives of these remarkable women. It’s a hard point to argue with.