‘Hidden Figures’ and the power of pragmatism
Just when we need it, a space movie filled with real, tangible hope
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We love a good space movie, don’t we?
We’ve had some grand, engulfing ones make appearances in late fall/early winter over the past few years with 2013’s Gravity and 2015’s The Martian. I’m including the recent Arrival, too, even though, admittedly, it’s more of an alien movie than a space one.
This year, we have Hidden Figures, which opens nationally Friday, and has as much to say about our common humanity as it does about the space race and the previously unsung individuals who helped power it. However, its approach is more local in scope. Gravity, The Martian, and Arrival all dealt with humanity on a massive, existential scale, with the people of Earth pulling together to save one of their own (or, in the case of Arrival, the entire human race), because it’s simply The Right Thing To Do. Hidden Figures, which is based on a true story, is decidedly less idealistic. Instead, it’s a glimpse at how you win civil rights victories even if you don’t win hearts and minds. It’s about winning battles as a result of common interests even as your adversaries have trouble seeing you as a person who is just like them. The pragmatism that flows through Hidden Figures, combined with its upbeat-yet-straightforward approach to showcasing the racist nastiness that Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) endured while working at NASA’s racially segregated Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, in the 1960s, provides a beacon of hope in a modern era that feels marked by uncertainty and despair.
Johnson, Vaughn, and Jackson are friends who work as (human) computers for NASA. They compute complex math problems as part of a group of black women hired to do the same. The conditions of their employment are not ideal. They’re segregated away from the white computers, they’re hired on as temp employees, and Vaughn, the de facto leader of the black computers, isn’t recognized as a supervisor even though she clearly performs supervisory work. But Johnson, Vaughn, and Jackson have a couple of factors on their side: confidence in their abilities that is reinforced by friendship, and the deadline pressure of an actual race to space with the Soviets.
Over and over, Hidden Figures demonstrates how these women, especially Johnson, were able to ascend through NASA. It wasn’t because their white colleagues suddenly decided to stop being racist, but because it was in NASA’s interest for them to do so. When Johnson is tapped to double-check the work of Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), he tries his best to sabotage her. He barely conceals his contempt for her in their interactions. He redacts the calculations Johnson needs to see to do her job. Johnson’s prickly boss, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) comes to her aid in working with Stafford, not because he’s sympathetic, or even aware of her specific plight as the only black woman in the department, but because he’s in a hurry to put a guy in earth’s orbit before the Soviets do.
When Johnson needs a security clearance to get her work done faster, it’s Harrison who grants it over Stafford’s protests because they have a common interest in meeting the government’s stringent deadlines.
When Jackson needs a court order to allow her to take night classes at an all-white school so that she can enter NASA’s engineering program, she appeals to the ego of the judge in the case. “Out of all the cases you hear today, which one’s gonna make you the first?” Jackson asks, making his decision a question of judicial legacy. She convinces him that they both have an interest in history not remembering him as a retrograde bigot. This, by the way, is precisely what Slate’s Lara Bazelon recently argued may save the Roberts Court from becoming a rubber stamp for the incoming Trump administration.
Maybe it’s not heartwarming, but it’s certainly realistic. The country pulled together to best a common enemy at the behest of a young, photogenic president who inspired optimism, even as it was wrestling with an internecine conflict over civil rights. Johnson even manages to needle Harrison into letting her attend Pentagon briefings to provide up-to-date calculations when it becomes clear that they have a common interest in not killing astronaut John Glenn.
While Hidden Figures illustrates that good that can come of dismantling barriers in the pursuit of common interests, it doesn’t offer white absolution. Johnson, Vaughn, and Jackson don’t allow the cruelties of living in a racist country to permanently steal their joy — Mary’s saucy demeanor feels like a direct rebellion against it — but Hidden Figures also acknowledges the difficulties of working in a place surrounded by white people who barely tolerate your presence. That’s a shift from just 10 years ago, when Sony Pictures released The Pursuit of Happyness.
Hidden Figures and Pursuit of Happyness heavily feature their protagonists constantly running — it’s a recurring motif of both films. Will Smith’s character, Chris Gardner, is running to acquire shelter, running to acquire clients, running to sell the bone density scanners that earn him a living, but mostly running to keep his white employers happily ignorant of his plight as a homeless, unpaid intern at Dean Witter. Johnson, on the other hand, must run from her new office, with white colleagues who won’t deign to share a coffeepot with her, half a mile every time she has to use the restroom, because that’s the distance to the closest facility designated for black women.
Both films feature white people who are oblivious to the struggles and lives of their black colleagues, but there’s an enormous difference between what the two movies have to say about that obliviousness and the way white people have walled themselves off with segregated housing and education. Unlike Pursuit of Happyness, which offers no critique of such willful oblivion, Hidden Figures implicates it in a jarring, tearful, pissed-off monologue from Johnson. When Harrison asks where Johnson disappears every day for 40 minutes, there’s an office showdown in which a dripping wet Johnson, who’s had to run a mile in the rain just to use the restroom, explodes, not just about the restroom but about an entire workplace structure that’s built to reinforce her inferiority.
The only jewelry she’s expected to wear is a string of white pearls, but NASA doesn’t pay her enough to afford them. She’s in violation of a sexist dress code that mandates she wear skirts and sweaters, but not blouses, because she doesn’t make enough money to buy a new wardrobe, again because her pay and position are not commensurate with her work. She’s expected to double-check the math of a colleague who redacts his work because he can’t countenance that a black woman might know just as much, if not more than he does. All of Johnson’s frustrations come tumbling out in a scene that is utterly human.
Johnson is no silent martyr who grinds until her white colleagues finally recognize her genius and decide to gift her with the recognition and respect she deserved all along. She realizes that’s a pipe dream. And so she pushes, and she keeps pushing, even when it’s impolite, even when it makes white people uncomfortable. Where Pursuit of Happyness didn’t bother suggesting any sort of moral deficiency on the part of do-nothing, know-nothing white people, Hidden Figures shouts it. Harrison takes it upon himself to desegregate the restrooms, mostly because he can’t afford for his top computer to waste 40 minutes a day running back and forth.
The black women of Hidden Figures are constantly pushing — whether it’s Johnson pushing Harrison to allow her to attend Pentagon briefings, or Vaughn stealing a library book to learn Fortran, the programming language for the IBM computer threatening to put her out of a job. After a librarian informed her that the book came from a part of the library restricted only to whites, Vaughn tucked it away and took it anyway, because how else was she going to learn?
But even common interests can’t serve those who can’t see them, and in that regard, Vivian Mitchell, the obstructionist head of the white computers played by an icy Kirsten Dunst, becomes a cinematic metonym for the 53 percent of white women who voted for Donald Trump, an admitted sexual assaulter who said women who have abortions must be punished for doing so. Mitchell is so determined to block Vaughn and her fellow computers from achieving any sort of progress — and so interested in maintaining a racist status quo she’s convinced benefits her — that she ends up undercutting herself in the process. When NASA needs programmers for its new IBM computer, it’s Vaughn’s team who is armed with knowledge of Fortran, while Mitchell’s group is left in the cold.
Besides communicating about the power of common interests, Hidden Figures demonstrates why sneering dismissively at “identity politics” or using the term as a pejorative amounts to little more than hogwash. When you stand in the way of progress for women and people of color, you are only hobbling yourself. Hidden Figures offers a beautiful illustration of how hollow the call to “Make America Great Again” really rings, because an America without black women isn’t just an America without the women who birthed, nursed, and raised so many white children at the expense of their own. There will be no white ethnostate like the one white nationalist Richard Spencer dreams of creating because an America without black women is an America without its most educated demographic in the workforce. It is an America devoid of a group, who instead of pouting and throwing hissy fits as automation threatens to make its jobs obsolete, instead picks itself up, dusts itself off, and answers with steely resolve and a thirst for more education, as Dorothy Vaughn did.
An America without black women is an America lacking the energy, the bravery, the optimism, and the determination to power its wildest dreams, like sending a man hurtling into space to orbit the earth and then bringing him safely back home — you know, its moon shots.
Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.