Before the Oscars tonight, I wanted to write about the truly groundbreaking movie that I will be most pulling for. The first movie in a while that I didn’t feel the desire to check my phone the entire time. No, it’s not La La Land. Or even Moonlight.
It’s Hidden Figures.
Hidden Figures tells the previously untold stories of three African American women-Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan- whose contributions made it possible for the United States to win the space race over the Soviet Union during the Cold War. These women were “human computers” during a time when technology was only beginning to be able to complete the computations necessary to send a man to the moon, but also during a time when every second counted and mistakes inevitably made by this new technology could not be entertained. More importantly, it was during a time when African Americans, let alone African American women, were still blatantly treated as less than. Most of the female African American computers that worked at NASA at the time were segregated from their white counterparts in all aspects of day-to-day life: separate dining rooms, computing rooms, and, as the film makes a plot point of, bathrooms.
There is no weak link in this movie. Each of the three actresses who play the main roles bring something special and distinct to their character that makes them stand out from each other, while also allowing them to mesh seamlessly into the friend group that is already established when the film opens.
Taraji P. Henson’s Katherine Johnson is unquestionably the cornerstone of the film. She is the one whose contributions most directly cause the success of the space program. She proves her indispensability, to the frustration and attempted sabotage of her white male peers, every time she is given an assignment (all of which are shown to the viewer as having complete, real mathematical accuracy!). She painstakingly earns the respect of not only these white men, but also of the single white woman who works alongside her, and the black man who would come to be her husband-National Guard officer Jim Johnson, played by Mahershala Ali. By the end of the movie, astronaut John Glenn himself requests that Johnson be the one to check the computer’s calculations for his trajectory. She catches a tiny miscalculation the computer made that would have made the difference between success and failure.
There are two scenes that Taraji P. Henson exceptionally kills it in. The first should be especially commended because it involves what must have taken so much exercise in heels. After having been forced to run back and forth across the NASA Langley campus every time she had to go to the bathroom for weeks, because there was no “Colored” bathrooms near her new, predominantly white office, Henson breaks down when her boss asks her why she’s gone for so long every day.“There are no colored bathrooms here, or anywhere except the west campus,” she says, through tears. “And I work like a dog living off a pot of coffee the rest of you don’t want to touch!”
The second scene of Taraji P. Henson’s that made an impact was with aforementioned romantic interest Mahershala Ali’s Jim Johnson. When he expresses surprise that NASA allows women to do calculations for them, she replies: “On any given day, I analyze the nominal levels or air displacement friction and velocity, and compute over ten thousand computations by hand. So, yes, they let women do some things at NASA, Mr. Johnson, and it’s not because we wear skirts. It’s because we wear glasses.” She punctuates her statement with a demonstrating pushing up of her own pair of spectacles.
Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy Vaughan is a bit more understated than the other two. She’s quieter, more subdued. She’s not as vocally straightforward as Mary Jackson or as central to the space program as Katherine Johnson. She is simply, uniquely, smart. She implies this herself near the beginning of the movie, “I haven’t been late one day in ten years. Haven’t been out sick. Haven’t complained. My work’s on time. It’s done right. It’s done well. Watching you two get moved on. Now don’t get me wrong, any upward movement is movement for us all. It just isn’t movement for me.” It’s only towards the end that her character finds her voice and grasps both her superiors’ and the viewers’ attention as her own person separate from her friends. She makes herself, and the other young black women she supervises, indispensable by making them the only ones who are able to handle the new technology that comes in efficiently. There is actually a scene towards the end, following Dorothy’s breakthrough, where Dorothy’s white female racist superior tells her, “You know Dorothy…Despite what you may think…I have nothing against y’all.” Dorothy responds, “I know. I know you probably believe that.” There was never a scene where the theater audience laughed louder.
I will say that I don’t think Janelle Monáe has received enough credit for her enthralling portrayal of Mary Jackson. My eyes were positively glued to her whenever she was on screen, and she made her character unforgettable despite having the least amount of screen time of the three. From her evocative line, “Every time we get a chance to get ahead they move the finish line. Every time.” to her resulting, empowered legal battle to attend the courses, offered solely at an all-white college, that were suddenly “required” if she wished to become an engineer, Monáe’s Mary Jackson is every bit as critical to the message and spirit of Hidden Figures as Henson’s Katherine Johnson and Spencer’s Dorothy Vaughan.
This movie, these three women, deserve Oscars for their hard work towards finally telling these extraordinary women’s stories fifty years too late.
Best character: Katherine Johnson