At first glance, it’s obvious that “Hidden Figures” is a fitting watch for Black History Month: the principal characters are black and the film is set in the early 1960s. But that assessment sells it short. “Hidden Figures” is an excellent film to watch in February because it plucks black women’s history from the depths of erasure, and celebrates black joys and sorrows in a nuanced way.
On Saturday, I met up with the crew and headed to the theatre to finally watch “Hidden Figures.” Before the Golden Globes, the NAACP Image, Oscar and Screen Actors Guild noms, I wanted to see this movie. Black women? And space? And they’re killing it at math and science? Sign me up. The fact that Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson and reigning space princess Janelle Monáe carry the film was an added bonus.
And carry the film they did. Similar to Viola Davis’ performance in “Fences,” Spencer shows us that silence shouldn’t be taken for weakness. Dorothy Vaughan remains resolute in demanding equal pay and equal opportunities for advancement — both for herself and the rest of the black women in NASA’s West Area Computing Group.
As Mary Jackson, Monáe shows us new ways to be radically black. Instead of subscribing to the radicalism of her husband, played by Aldis Hodge, Jackson is radical just by daring to exist. She is determined to become an engineer for NASA. She is determined to enroll in the necessary courses at the all-white high school. She is determined to reach her full potential, despite the double layer of social and legal barriers for black women.
Henson absolutely shines as Katherine Goble Johnson. She strikes a balance between Vaughan’s endurance and Jackson’s tenacity. From rage to indignation to tenderness, the audience feels the full depth of Johnson’s emotions. Through her struggles with the Space Task Group and her struggles to rebuild her home life, too, we see the plight of working women and black professionals.
As women, working black women take on “the second shift” — also known as “the double burden” — of keeping the home together. As black professionals, working black women are constantly berated, second-guessed and sabotaged by their white or male peers.
It’s here that the film does very important work: illustrating intersectionality. Especially at a time like Black History Month, where the focus is race, one’s intersecting identities are often thrown out of the window. In “Hidden Figures,” audiences watch white men disguise racism as sexism to the tune of, “We can’t have a woman in the Pentagon meeting.” There is the issue of the coffee pot and the early current of Johnson sacrificing 40 minutes each day to travel across NASA’s campus for the nearest colored ladies’ restroom.
And finally, Kirsten Dunst’s Vivian Mitchell is a lesson in how gender can sometimes fail to unite women and give way to other oppressions. As a supervisor, Mitchell maintains the power structure put in place by the white men at NASA by refusing to advocate for the West Area Computing Group.
As “Hidden Figures” runs its course at the box office, hopefully the positive response will continue not just in the awards it wins, but how it touches audiences. While a pleasure to watch, the film presents a difficult story: one of the many unnecessary and taxing obstacles black Americans must overcome before they triumph. Still, it’s in this difficult story that girls and women of color can find strength and pride.
The fact that people are taking notice of movie like “Hidden Figures” is meaningful for the same reason that the stories of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson are meaningful. Whether it’s 1957 or 2017, being celebrated despite and for your blackness and your womanness are radical concepts. While released in time for awards season and Black History Month, “Hidden Figures” is a film that sticks with you long after the credits roll.