By: Kevin Jordan
At least math is colorblind.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen a rising number of movies aimed at shining a spotlight on the history of racism in the United States. Well, maybe it’s more like a rising number of well publicized movies because there have been plenty of those movies prior to the last few years. Either way, it’s a good thing that this is happening because we all need to remember and acknowledge our past in order to continue progressing in the future. Sadly, it just got orders-of-magnitude more difficult what with the results of the presidential election. But, I’m not here to talk about that disaster-in-waiting, I’m here to talk about the latest movie to make me angry that people were (and still are, in some cases) such extraordinary assholes.
Hidden Figures is the story of three black women working for NASA in the 1960s. Specifically, Katherine Johnson (Taraji O. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). All three of these women were extremely intelligent humans trying to break through systemic racism at an institution that shouldn’t have given two shits about skin color. Figuring out a rocket’s trajectory is incredibly difficult work, especially during the early days of the Mercury program (the focus of this film) – you would think the people working on that problem wouldn’t have time to cast disparaging glances at the black women getting coffee. Though, that does explain why there were so many failures in those early days.
A movie like this interests me for multiple reasons, the two biggest being that it’s about NASA and that it’s about a piece of history that I did not know. Like with the events at Selma, most schools do a shit job of teaching history – especially recent history – when the topics include components that make our country look bad. Hidden Figures does a good job of mixing subtle racism with overt racism while giving us a glimpse into the Mercury program. Things like: Katherine having to run across campus to use the colored restroom or getting the stink eye because she poured coffee from a coffee pot that, until she joined the Space Task Group, had only been touched by white men. Seriously, rocket scientists thought they would get cooties because she touched the same button on a coffee machine, even though they all had to touch the same door knob to get into the room.
I also learned a lot about the space race between us and the Russians and the tremendous pressure these people were under. These women worked at Langley (yes, that Langley) and were initially responsible for performing computing functions. Yes, like a computer does today and was about to start doing then. With the introduction of IBM mainframes, all of these women’s jobs were at risk. Dorothy saw this risk well in advance and took it upon herself to not only teach herself how to program the mainframe (and get it running initially), but teach the entire black computing group (also all women) how to program. This earned her the first black supervisory position after a lot of pushback from a supervisor named Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), who swears late in the movie that she has nothing against “you people” to Dorothy. Dorothy’s response is perfect – “you keep right on believing that.”
Meanwhile, Mary was trying to break barriers in the engineering world, but literally had to go to court to persuade a judge to let her attend night classes at an all-white high school that were required for her to be accepted into an engineering program. 1961 wasn’t that long ago, folks, and this kind of crap pisses me off, especially because similar bullshit still happens now.
Most notably, at least in this film, Katherine was working as a number cruncher in the Space Task Group, double-checking the trajectories computed by the men in the room. While doing this, she had to put up with having her name removed from her own work and being forced to work with heavily redacted files because her skin color and gender precluded her from having the same clearance as the men in the room. Even with her help, how the fuck did we ever get a rocket off the ground with groupthink like that?
Anyway, the three actresses gave excellent performances, as did the supporting cast, most notably Dunst and Kevin Costner (playing Al Harrison, director of the Space Task Group). One scene in particular stood out to me – when Al openly questions where Katherine disappears to every day (the bathroom – across campus), she gives the entire room an earful and Costner looks ashamed enough for his entire family tree. The great thing about his character is that he seems to be the one person who doesn’t care about color, but about astronauts surviving the rocket launches, and he’s in a position of power. Had the progressive person been his deputy, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), it would have been too much of a cliché. Whether Al really did take a crowbar to the colored bathroom sign or if that was just Hollywood writing, I’m glad that it happened in this film.
The one complaint I have about this film is the same complaint I had about The Help and 42 – the racism was tempered down. If a movie about racism doesn’t make you uncomfortable, then it’s not showing you the raw reality of the way humans have – and still do – treat other humans. Hidden Figures was even further tempered by its PG rating (the other two films were PG-13) and relegated most of the overt racism to spliced in news footage of Civil Rights protests. I’d like to think that a place like NASA and Langley were the least racist places, but I’ve read history books and know better. I know that this movie is based on a book of the same name that includes interviews with these people and that they tried to stay true to the source material, but I would have liked their plights to be more palpable. It felt a little too watered down and I don’t think that does anyone a service.
That aside, Hidden Figures is a very good, if not by-the-numbers, flick. If you like little-told history movies with great acting, you will love this movie. If you are just a science nerd who built model rockets, you’ll like this movie too. If you’re the kind of person who thinks we’re getting too PC, especially in Hollywood, you’re the kind of asshole I mentioned earlier and should just stay home.
Rating: Don’t ask for any money back and don’t forget history, because there’s a chance we’re about to repeat it.