Hidden Figures is rightfully acclaimed as an uplifting and inspirational film. The movie features outstanding performances and pays tribute to three pioneering Black women who played a central role at NASA in the early 1960s during the “space race” between the United States and the Soviet Union. The film’s title refers to both the elusive calculations needed to send the Mercury space capsule into orbit and the unsung Black women whose contributions to the space program made these and future missions possible.
But as I left the theater, I felt more than inspired. I felt heartened by a story in which Black women didn’t play second fiddle to white people in the story of their own lives.
Based on the 2016 book of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures is the story of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). The women are colleagues at the segregated NASA facility in Langley, Virginia, in 1961. As “colored computers,” they perform basic but vital calculations for the space program in a separate unit from their white female counterparts. When Johnson is promoted to the Space Task Group, she must walk half a mile to go to the “colored” women’s restroom in her old unit.
As part of the Space Task Group, Johnson, a math prodigy who graduated college at 18, calculated trajectories, launch windows, and emergency back-up return paths for missions including Project Mercury and the Apollo 11 mission which took the first humans to the moon. Later in her career, Johnson’s work supported the Space Shuttle program and a planned mission to Mars. Today, a NASA research facility bears Johnson’s name. But back then, the bald racism of Johnson’s white colleagues’ threatened to undermine not only her success but the success of the space program itself.
Johnson’s narrative, including her romance with a National Guard officer (Mahershala Ali), is at the heart of Hidden Figures. Vaughan and Jackson’s trailblazing careers get less screen time, but are no less compelling. Vaughan’s brilliance and initiative make her invaluable to NASA once new IBM machines are brought in to perform faster calculations. Jackson, an aspiring engineer, is undaunted when she has to ask a judge to desegregate an all-white school so that she can take the classes she needs to apply for her dream job.
Hidden Figures conveys so much about black women that should go without saying. Like, for instance, the fact that the so-called Mommy Wars was never our fight: Johnson no doubt missed her three young daughters during her long days (and nights) working at NASA, but it’s not presented as a central dilemma. For most black women, and women in general, outside employment is a necessity, not a choice.
The film also flies in the face of the popular “Get you a girl who can do both” meme narrative that suggests that multi-faceted black women are magical unicorns. Yes, Johnson and her colleagues were remarkable, especially in light of the casual and systemic racism they faced. But we can author top-secret security briefings at NASA by day and cut loose with our girls and Mason jars of corn liquor by night — and not miss a beat. That we can’t be boxed in is surprising to no one but people who don’t know us or who are threatened by our versatility and our freedom.
We don’t see the subjects of the film boycotting or marching, but Hidden Figures also brings light to the invisible acts of civil disobedience committed by Black people during the Civil Rights Movement, powerful acts of resistance that took place beyond the reach of television cameras and vicious police dogs.
Johnson, Vaughn, and Jackson’s experiences at NASA fifty years ago will seem familiar to any woman today who finds she has to be the smartest person in the room in order to advance. And even then, there’s no guarantee that racist or sexist roadblocks won’t be thrown in our path as we fight for what we’ve earned. Ultimately, justice — shamefully overdue — comes from more privileged people caving to social, political, or economic pressure, or to their consciences.
This was the case in Hidden Figures, but fortunately, there are no white saviors in the movie. This is likely a byproduct of the script staying true to Shetterly’s book. White NASA supervisors Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and Vivan Michael (Kirsten Dunst) are integral to the story without being centered. By the time Harrison challenges the racism at NASA, no one involved is a hero for simply doing what’s right. The audience in my theater broke into applause at several pivotal moments, but I believe the applause was for Katherine and her computing group colleagues finally getting what they are owed—not for the white people who waited far too long to do what simple decency and justice demanded.