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‘Hidden Figures’ Inspires Pride, Rage, and So Much More

Happy 2017, everyone.

I don’t quite know how happy the year will be, really. But with the arrival of December and January we find ourselves in another film industry award season, and the parade of prestige pictures in theaters.

And so, on a Sunday afternoon, I sat in a packed screening of Hidden Figures.

Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae, the film tells the true story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, pivotal women in NASA’s early history, and is based on the book of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly. These women’s work as “human computers” enabled John Glenn’s historic spaceflight, among other achievements throughout their careers at the space agency.

In other words, this movie was packed with blerd bona fides and #BlackGirlMagic.

The film’s title rings with double meaning, of course. Johnson, and the all-black group of women who worked as human computers, were essentially erased from major histories of NASA. These hidden figures’ roles in history came up against racism and sexism. They’re never mentioned in The Right Stuff.

A story with black women at its center, Hidden Figures weaves in how these women handle the double yoke of racism and sexism.

The movie doesn’t quite escape some of the white hero stuff you’re used to in movies invoking black progress. The composite character of NASA Langley director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) desegregates the restrooms by taking a sledgehammer to the Colored Women’s Restroom sign and taciturnly says, “Here at NASA we all pee the same color.”

But, seen another way, the aloof and single-minded Harrison also was enacting whatever means to deliver his ends. The mile-long roundtrip for Johnson made her bathroom breaks too long, when she should be working to send a man into space and return him to Earth alive. He didn’t care to pay attention, whether insulated by his own white privilege or mathematical single-mindedness.

We also get some finger-snapping moments such as Vaughan’s interaction with supervisor/racially biased roadblock Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), another composite character. When Mitchell says she’s “got nothing against y’all” after again denying Vaughan (Spencer) a promotion to become NASA’s first black supervisor, Vaughan replies, “I know … that’s what you think.” This interaction, and its focus, is a far cry from a previous civil rights-era film Spencer worked in, The Help.

With all that said, for being such a feel-good Hollywood telling of this important story, and the quality and care with which it was done, my chief impression coming away from this film is one of rage.

Think of all the genius in this world snuffed out by racism and sexism’s designed, on purpose, dispossession and lack of opportunity. Hidden Figures opens in 1920s West Virginia, as an elementary school-age Katherine Johnson must move 120 miles to get her to adequate schooling for her prodigious talent with numbers.

Is there a cure for cancer locked away in the mind of a poor black child in Chicago? There might be.

Think of the repeated times in American history in which black wealth, black success, black towns, black people, were destroyed for the sake of preserving the racial status quo, such as the utter destruction of Greenwood, Oklahoma, in 1921.

Think about how jaw-droppingly amazing – and lucky – the few black folks who “made it” had to be. Think about how much more they had to do, all while still getting not as much for their trouble. I’ve lived those inequities, and I’m 50 years removed from the events of Hidden Figures.

Katherine Johnson, in the film’s big-Hollywood-speech moment, notes that the NASA dress code allows women only a string of pearls to wear, but the black workers aren’t paid enough to afford them. (That’s right: economic issues are identity politics, too.)

With all of this in mind, then, consider how insulting it then must be when those of us who somehow beat the odds are told we should be grateful. As if someone handed this to us and allowed us to have something. Hidden Figures even gives Dunst’s character, Mitchell, that classic line of white paternalism and supremacist thinking.

Hell, Dorothy Vaughan had to steal a book on computer programming from the library because the book wasn’t kept in the colored section. She had to steal a book her taxes paid for that library to own, but kept from her.

So excuse me if I get teary-eyed when John Glenn asks for the re-entry calculations to come only from Katherine Johnson.

Pardon me if I swell with pride when women in colored computers walk en masse to those new IBMs, a parade of relaxed hair and kitten heels, armed with the knowledge from that stolen library book on Fortran coding.

Console me during Glenn’s rocket launch, as I weep for my deceased father, who was in the Air Force and helped set up the Bermuda checkpoint.

And rage with me when Johnson steps into that all-male space of the classified Friendship 7 launch meetings, only to blow everyone away with her expertise – with answers those sexist cretins could have been had.

In just this one scene of Hidden Figures, we see sexism delay historic achievement and transformational social progress.

Kinda rhymes with our times of late, doesn’t it?

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Kelno Ream

    February 21, 2017 at 6:18 pm

    I also winced when Kevin Costner’s character destroyed the sign. It was a “feel good” moment designed to help white audiences cheer him on when he finally figured it out. But I doubt such a moment ever really occurred. American history is laced with white people who knew what they were doing was wrong, but stood idly by.

    It’s the notion that these black women needed a white hat/white man to “rescue” them. It’s outrageous that this was the case, and outrageous that the film made a white guy the good guy in this oversimplified bit of history.

    It’s very sad, but an authentic end of this movie would have been Katherine NOT being called into the room to witness the launch. That’s reality.

    • Joe

      May 21, 2017 at 12:33 pm

      American history is also laced with white people who were part of the fight against racial injustice. Also I think you are greatly misreading the scene. It’s not a white man saving them, it’s a proud black woman changing the boss’s mind and making him realize how stupid the status quo is and how it’s depriving them all of the benefits of the best possible talents. He would be the only one capable of actually breaking down the sign but she’s the one who made it happen.

  2. Alejandra Ramirez

    October 14, 2017 at 4:17 pm

    I agree with Joe. Kevin Costner’s character spells it out: he just wants employees to use the restrooms closest to their desks. He comes to the realization that to beat the Russians, America has to use all its resources efficiently, including women and African Americans. Unfortunately, much of the progress made towards equality has to do with the economic pressures of better utilizing all of us as a workforce rather than any altruistic motive.

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