Three black women. During segregation. The remarkable women of Hidden Figures, include Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae). All working for NASA at the height of the space race.
Racism is sometimes equated with those who are less educated. The divide in Hidden Figures is the racism present in the educated elite. NASA invites the best and the brightest. If there’s one place where color may be blind, it’s there.
Spencer is unable to advance because the idea of a black supervisor would be appalling to white sensibilities, (white people should really get that checked out). Henson is assigned to Kevin Costner (Al Harrison)’s division, where there are no “colored” bathrooms. Apparently, blacks don’t need to urinate. Henson has to run half a mile to the West Area of NASA to use the restroom. If that weren’t enough, she’s given a separate “colored” coffee pot for her morning brew (last time I checked coffee was black too). Monae wants to be an engineer, but sure enough, black female engineers don’t exist. And white segregationist America doesn’t want them to exist.
Most of Hidden Figures consists of how many ways blacks got screwed in the 60s, and there were many. Yet, one of the more integral portions of the film, something that has little to do with race, is modernization. All of the black women who work at NASA, work as “computers.” Actual computers were in their infancy. In lieu of technology, (wo)man power is used. Every bit of math is double checked by these women. Nevertheless, IBM is installing computers that can do as many computations as the women do in a day, in a second. In a coup de tat, Spencer trains herself and her computers to operate the new IBM machines. The signature shot of the film is human-computers being assigned to work on the new technology. NASA, and its buildings are a sterile white color. All, except the West Area, which is an old brown brick building (when set design goes right). The image of black women, in multi-colored clothing of purple, pink, orange etc, walking down the white halls of NASA is a spectacular use of mise-en-scene.
Henson’s story is no-less compelling. She is a recently widowed mother of three. Her love interest, Colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali, who should be paying his agent whatever amount he/she wants #LukeCage #Houseofcards #Moonlight #HiddenFigures), initially doubts her mental ability as a woman. Her direct supervisor, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), is initially jealous of her ability, as demonstrated through his unwillingness to co-author any of their research. Yet, Henson is able to create groundbreaking equations, take care of three daughters, sit-in on Defense meetings, and has the ultimate trust of John Glenn (Glen Powell).
Monae’s character often appears to be left on the back-burner. This is the inherent weakness of any film trying to tell the story of three main characters at once, especially if they have divergent arches, needs, and wants. Monae signing-up to take classes at a segregated school deserves a bit more screen time than was allotted, and for the most part, she’s relegated to the wild friend trying to get her uptight partner to loosen-up role.
Hidden Figures isn’t particularly groundbreaking in its depiction of race or sexism. Its main drive is to add-on to the recent phenomenon of putting a spotlight on little known stories. You won’t leave knowing anything new about the differences in race and gender relations, but it will remind you that they did, and do, exist. In the meantime, I’ll be waiting on the next Mahershala Ali role because it looks like he’s in everything. Like the newly filmed Roxanne Roxanne, or the new Justine League film. Wait, he’s not in there? He should be….
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