Review: Hidden Figures – On Wednesday, in a sad and run-down cinema a little less than two miles from us, HJ and I saw the film Hidden Figures, which is based on the true story of three black women who played pivotal roles at NASA in the 1960s.
I’m probably a bit late to the game on this, and if you have any interest in the film I imagine you’ve seen it already. If you haven’t, though, let’s get this out of the way up front: Yes, I would definitely recommend it. It had the right blend of humor, pathos, conflict, and tension, and it doesn’t hurt that the entire cast turned in solid performances, especially the leads. And I must admit that I am a sucker for a good space race story. Even though it all happened before I was born, it wasn’t that long before I was born—so it’s “historical” enough to have developed the patina of nostalgia for a US golden age, but it’s also close enough to feel like the US that I was a part of. And there’s something about humanity exploring the final frontier that is just so heroic. But the space race is just the backdrop here for the heroism the film explores.
So, I guess that paragraph covers the “review” portion of this entry. I’m more interested in talking about what stuck with me after the credits rolled. I suppose I should put in the obligatory spoiler warning, but this isn’t the sort of film that can really be spoiled, based as it is on historical events. It also follows a fairly predictable pattern, so there are no twists or gotcha moments. But I will be talking in detail about certain aspects of the story, so if you haven’t seen this yet and want to go into it unsullied, maybe stop reading now.
OK, now we can begin. While Hidden Figures is on the surface about a critical time in the space race, it is obviously not just about NASA’s heroic efforts to put a man into space and then land a man on the moon. I’ve seen documentaries about this period in NASA’s history before, but I guess I never really thought about the fact that the 60s was also the era of the Civil Rights Movement. That reality comes to the fore here, though, as our protagonists are three black women who face very real discrimination. When main protagonist Katherine Goble is assigned to the Space Task Group, she comes into work one day to find a new coffee pot prepared for her use only—labeled “colored.” She also has to run a mile just to get to the only colored bathroom on the NASA campus. These are just a few of many examples.
It’s quite uncomfortable to watch scenes like this—scenes of open and unabashed segregation—and realize that we are only a half century removed from it. Much of what makes the film heartwarming, of course, is how our three protagonists succeed when the deck is so stacked against them. I remember thinking during the film that this was only possible because of NASA’s pragmatism—they needed people who could do what had to be done, and they didn’t have the luxury of catering to prejudice—but that’s not entirely true. In one important example that spills over into the world outside NASA, protagonist Mary Jackson successfully petitions the court to take night classes at an all-white high school, allowing her to apply (and ultimately get) a position as a NASA engineer. Still, the film as a whole is a reminder that NASA was something of a pioneer not just in space flight, and a reminder that judging people by the color of their skin rather than by merit isn’t good for anyone.
What really stayed with me after the film was over, though, was how these three women resisted and overcame the status quo. I mentioned above that the space race is set against the social backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, and we get occasional glimpses of the violence that this often entailed. In each of those instances, though, our protagonists shy away from this violence. To give one example, when Mary Jackson comes home to find her husband and children watching a news report about a freedom rider bus that had been bombed, she asks her husband if the children really need to be watching it. Her husband replies: “They need to see this. Everyone needs to see this.” Although not portrayed as violent, her husband is (like a lot of men) definitely hot-blooded and believes that blacks can only win equality through conflict and struggle. When she tells him that she is going to apply for the position of engineer, he tells her: “You can’t apply for freedom. Freedom is never granted to the oppressed. It’s got to be demanded. Taken.”
Mary’s reply to this hints at the strategy adopted by the women: “Stop quoting your slogans at me. There’s more than one way to achieve something.” The way most obvious to her husband is struggle and conflict, but she and the other women choose instead to work from within a system that is prejudiced against them. This does require bending the rules on occasion. Mary’s petitioning of the court is an example of a legal bending of the rules. Dorothy, the third protagonist, is the de facto supervisor (but of course does not have the title or pay of a supervisor) of the “colored computers” at NASA (“computer” here refers to a person who computes). When it becomes apparent that she and her team are going to be made obsolete by the new IBM mainframe that has recently been installed, Dorothy goes to the public library to get a book on the programming language Fortran. Unfortunately, the public library is whites only, and she and her two children are kicked out—but not before she nicks the book she needs.
All three of the women, though not shy about expressing their dissatisfaction with the status quo when necessary, for the most part quietly and competently do their jobs, making themselves indispensable to NASA. And, of course, they are not just blacks in a white world, they are women in a men’s world. When the head of the Space Task Group, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), tells his team that they are going to be working overtime to catch up to the Russians, he says, “Call your wives and tell them how it’s going to be.” Later, when Katherine wants to attend a Pentagon briefing so she can have the latest data to work with, a statistician named Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) tells her that there is no protocol for women attending the briefing. And they don’t only receive this treatment from white men; when Katherine first meets Jim, the black man who will eventually become her second husband (she was widowed with three children) and tells him what she does, he adroitly maneuvers his foot straight down his gullet by saying, “They let women handle that sort of thing?
Of course, race is still a far more pernicious dividing line than gender, and the men in the protagonists’ lives come around. When Mary Jackson succeeds in her petition to take night classes at the all-white high school, her husband couldn’t be more proud of her, and he admits that she was right: “Ain’t nobody dare stand in the way of Mary Jackson’s dreams. Myself included.” Jim realizes what a fool he has been and apologizes to Mary—and obviously it works. In the end, the blunders by the men serve more to highlight the fortitude and strength of the women than to represent any real threat to their relationships.
On the other hand, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) represents the white female presence at NASA as Dorothy Vaughan’s supervisor. I found her character truly fascinating because she genuinely believes herself to be a good person who is doing the right thing. Paul Stafford may have been the face of open prejudice and discrimination at NASA, but Vivian Mitchell is an example of the subtle and institutional prejudice of even “good” people. In a pivotal scene late in the film, she quietly tells Dorothy: “Despite what you may think, I have nothing against y’all.” Dorothy smiles and replies, “I know you probably believe that,” leaving Vivian stunned. The truth is that Vivian never treated Dorothy as an equal, and their dynamic throughout the film is squirm-worthy. The “y’all” a the end of her well-meaning statement here says it all: You people are different from me; you’re the Other. At the end, though, when Vivian gives Dorothy the news that she has finally been promoted to supervisor of the new programming team, they share this brief exchange: “Thank you for the information, Mrs. Mitchell.” “You’re quite welcome, Mrs. Vaughan.” What makes this exchange so important is that this is the first time Vivian has referred to Dorothy by her last name, a sign of respect. And all three of our protagonists earn the respect of their male counterparts as well; one of the final scenes of the film shows Katherine working late and Paul Stafford personally delivering a mug of coffee to her desk as he walks by. Token touches, perhaps, but very powerful after what we witnessed over the course of the previous two hours. (This seems as good a time as any to mention that the characters of Vivian Mitchell and Paul Stafford—and Al Harrison, for that matter—are fictional composites of people who worked at NASA. History vs. Hollywood has a great fact-checking page with a lot more information on what was real and what wasn’t. When it comes to film narratives “based” on a true story, though, the factual status of a narrative is generally not as important to me as the ultimate truth of it.)
So our protagonists successfully overcome obstacles on two different levels, race and gender. The racial aspect was definitely more obvious and direct, which is perhaps why the gender aspect stayed with me. As I mentioned above, the way that these three women approached their situations impressed and inspired me, and their actions were directly contrasted with that of the men around them. Truth be told, it’s easy to get angry when things don’t go our way. Fighting when you need to takes a certain amount of courage, of course, but it is one of humanity’s two instinctual responses to being pushed to the extreme. Firmly but quietly keeping at things even in the face of constant discrimination and belittling, knowing that you are doing the right thing and working toward fulfilling your dreams—now that’s hard. Let me be clear: I’m not saying that fighting is never necessary, because sometimes it is. I’m not belittling all those who fought (even at the cost of their lives) for the Civil Rights Movement, or all those who still fight for things that need to be fought for. I’m just saying that not fighting is often taken to be weakness, but there is a difference between avoiding conflict out of cowardice and choosing another way out of strength of conviction. The former may indeed be weakness, but the latter requires the utmost courage, fortitude, and tenacity—sometimes more than is required by fighting.
In the end, there were a lot of reasons why I liked this film. I liked it because it was about our golden age of space exploration. I liked it because it showed smart people changing the world (never has checking figures by hand been so fraught with dramatic tension!). But most of all I liked it because, even though I knew exactly what was going to happen, the film still managed to surprise and move me.