‘Hidden Figures’ is warm and brilliantly inspirational
Based on the true story, “Hidden Figures” is a historical drama that puts into perspective the importance of three Black women who were integral to NASA’s mission in putting John Glenn into orbit. The narrative is inspiring, invoking the kind of awe that we’ve all felt in watching intellectual brilliance unfold onscreen.
The significance of this particular film—based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly—is found in the characters’ struggles with racism and sexism in a time period in which segregation was still in effect. Through these hardships, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) excels in an all-white and all-male Space Task Group.
Johnson uses her talent in science and mathematics to be the brains of NASA’s operations, checking the men’s calculations. Her two friends, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), are just as unapologetic in their talents, with Vaughan taking on a supervising role (despite not being able to get the official title or raise in pay that comes with it) and Jackson aspiring to become an engineer by fighting for her rights to go to all-white classes.
In early 1960s Hampton, Virginia, we see the effects of the then-normalized Jim Crow laws in the separation of people by the color of their skin, which greatly affects the day-to-day lives of these women. Important plot points document the journey of their success, showing the struggle that these women face in the workplace.
Johnson is assigned to check the math of Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), who continually dismisses her abilities. Her work is made more difficult as she has to walk half a mile to go to the colored ladies room, an effect of segregation, and eventually her testimony of frustration (a stunningly emotional performance from Henson) to Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) gains her better treatment.
What’s so moving about the execution of this film is that Johnson’s struggles only contribute to her brilliance—she’s most likely the smartest person in the room—and her abilities heighten her importance in launching Glenn into space. It is with her brain that the team is able to work around a threat to the mission, and the grand scheme of the plot unravels a tale of incredible scientific breakthroughs.
The heart of the story is made up not just of the experiences of Johnson moving up the ranks in a male-dominated field, but also the narrative of friendship and perseverance between her and the counterparts of her trio. Jackson fights in court to attend classes at an all-white school, making the point to the judge that his decision would make her one of the “firsts”: NASA’s first Black female engineer. Vaughan eventually becomes a supervisor for the West Area computers.
“Hidden Figures” itself isn’t substantial in terms of cinematic visuals or camera tricks. Instead, it’s the plot that drives the film for the entirety of its two hours. The film’s colorful setting and costumes evoke the mood of the times, while the charming leading ladies take the casual racism that constantly gets thrown against them and take unapologetic pride in themselves.
This is best seen in the beginning of the film, where their car breaks down, attracting the attention of a white cop. Upon learning that they they work for NASA, he offers them a police escort, a turn of events that prompts Jackson to quip “Three Negro women are chasing a white police officer down the highway in Hampton, Virginia, 1961. Ladies, that there is a God-ordained miracle!”
This feel-good biographical drama of the three African-American women who were crucial in launching a man into space is powered by the actors’ outstanding performances, who portray characters who are fiery with confidence, spirit and poise. These ladies’ roles as human “computers” show the integrity in being a woman of color advancing in the STEM field during a time when the color of their skin put them against all odds.
Ariya Sonethavy can be reached at email@example.com.