All words: Vesper Arnett
We need to keep teaching young people that everything is possible, even when it seems out of reach. Cinema makes the impossible accessible, and Hidden Figures is amazing cinema. Historical fiction may seem sort of dry to some, but this is much more than that.
Hidden Figures is a story about three grown women who are as strong as Beyoncé and as smart as… well, as smart as they are. Taraji P. Henson stars as Katherine G. Johnson, a “calculator” for NASA. Octavia Spencer is Dorothy Vaughan, the lead “calculator” who should really be a supervisor, and Janelle Monáe is Mary Jackson, a “calculator” who aspires to be an engineer. Back in the early 1960s, calculators didn’t just mean a device for counting, it meant a person who physically wrote out the equations and calculated them. Computers today do calculations at a much faster rate; this innovation was rapidly emerging as the Space Race became increasingly important to both sides.
Kathy is my new hero. Not only does she walk into a room full of white men and get announced as their equal, she does it while still segregated, earning lower wages, and lives as a working widow with three daughters. She is a boss, especially at math, and was the first Black female graduate student to earn a degree from West Virginia University. As a child prodigy, she was quickly singled out for her prowess in mathematics and fast-tracked through school.
Dorothy is the driver, literally and metaphorically, of the group of NASA calculators. Their group works out of the West campus, a segregated building far away from much of the “action” at the Langley Research facility in Hampton, Virginia. Dorothy supervises, delegates, and teaches at least twenty women the math necessary for launching rockets. Later in the film, she learns a programming language method by taking a book from a segregated library. She would’ve checked it out if the librarian hadn’t kicked her and her family out for being in the whites only section. She is a boss.
Mary is the warm blood of the group. She is married to a (hot) man who is super into activism and civil rights; Janelle Monáe is perfectly cast as someone who pushed boundaries in STEM. Mary wants to be an engineer, but because she is a black woman, her dreams are deemed inappropriate. It might seem absurd to us today, because there are so many more young, intelligent, and frank women in STEM today, from your local pharmacist to Mae Jemison to fictional women like Uhura, who didn’t even exist in the year the film takes place. Monáe delivers an effective performance that surely will inspire many feisty women to pursue their dreams, even if it means bringing it to court. She is a boss.
Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, and Kirsten Dunst are all in this film. They are all good. Parsons and Dunst have to perform different types of venomous racism to the women; one is a blatant sexist and general asshole, and the other only speaks to the black women because she is required to for her job. They are put in their place by women who prove the value of their work through results, not a desire to impress. Their skills could be put to use anywhere, but their choice was to serve NASA, despite lower pay, and stay within their community.
The community the women live in are also presented as an important element to the story, because without supportive people at home, they could have felt entirely alone. The film makes it a point to show how women get erased from the history books, through their inability to put their names on documents of record. We should know all of their names the way we know the names of the astronauts they helped send safely into space, including the late John Glenn.
We should know more about these women, and there too should be a film about the work put in by other female scientists of the era. Taraji P. Henson absolutely delivers here, proving that she can not only anchor a film as the lead, but that she is much more than the material she has been given in the past. This film sets out to bring an unknown story to the forefront, but it also shows the value in smaller stories within the bigger narratives. The women dealt with every obstacle with a grace that reflects a keen understanding of systemic injustice, and also their work as professionals. They are hidden no more, and so this film is inspirational.
Hidden Figures is obviously dramatized, but it’s important to note that the women likely went through more than what was shown, especially throughout school, and even in the years following the events of the film. Kathy is the only one of the three who is still alive, and she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work in 2015. The women are absolutely heroes, no matter how you swing it, and the film is a wonderful opportunity for all to internalize what we have to support in order to continue to advance.