“Hidden Figures” – Chipping Away at Bigotry with Intelligence

There are specific and powerful images throughout Hidden Figures, but none exemplify the central theme of Theodore Melfi’s film more than two shots of a piece of chalk held by the main character.  This pregnant extension of Katherine Goble’s (Taraji P. Henson) brilliant mind is both an invitation for her to prove herself as a black woman in a world of white men, but an implicit challenge by those same men that she could never be their equal.  Though they are not connected dramatically, her struggles and successes are thematically connected with the successes of her peers, so that each separate woman’s respective strides become reverberations of the others, until the resulting din screams a single poignant truth:  the quality and content of a person’s mind is not determined by race, gender, or anything else so superficial.

Hidden Figures, co-written by Allison Schroeder and Melfi and based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, details the stories of three female black mathematicians working at NASA in preparation of John Glenn’s first manned spaceflight.  Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is the supervisor of the Colored computers division on the West Area campus at Langley Research Center.  Henson plays Katherine, who is promoted to assist the space task group as a calculation-checker, but she quickly shows that her abilities are better spent working on more challenging questions.  Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) has also been promoted, but to the engineering team.  As a black woman, finds many roadblocks to acquiring the education she needs to succeed in the position.

The film follows the lives of these three women, mostly in a professional setting.  But, it also allows the audience to understand that these are not just a bunch of eggheads, but real people with real lives. The three lead women interact through a warm, southern repartee, with Monáe’s Mary Jackson shining though and lending the film the majority of its charm and humor.  Most of the personal drama focuses on Katherine as she struggles to both keep up with her colleagues and care for her three children as a single mother.  A romantic subplot involving a soldier played by Mahershala Ali is comforting and enjoyable, but it is clear that the focus of this film is on these women’s professional undertakings.

Each is distinct, but related by a theme:  the application of reason amid segregation.  Dorothy recognizes that the new IBM computer is going to put her and her girls out of a job, so she learns to program it and passes on her expertise so that when the computer is active, the IBM division is populated by her girls and overseen by her.  Mary has a passion for engineering, but archaic policies by NASA require that women take additional classes to apply for further education.  On top of that, the Commonwealth of Virginia puts NASA to shame in the backwards thinking – they have still not integrated, so Mary is not allowed to attend the classes she needs at the white high school.  Regardless, she sets herself on a path to acquire a court-order to allow her to attend the classes.  Katherine outdoes them all, and becomes one of the leading minds in the Space Task Group, despite terrible and subtle segregation that she finds, even in this supposed bastion of intellect and reason.

Because while Hidden Figures is built around the kernel of intellectual achievement, it is set within the greater context of an environment of segregation, bigotry, and racism.  Multiple scenes display these backwards philosophies, some brazen and nearly unbelievable, and some remarkably subtle.  In the context of the film, this makes empathizing with these women practically automatic, and places us firmly in their corners each step of the way.  Each actor has at least one astonishing scene in the film that directly confronts the racist undertones of their surroundings.  They are rousing sequences, and result our heroines overcoming.  Hence, as they triumph over each instance of racism, we get the feeling that bigoted thinking is prominent, but ultimately powerless.

This is the dual importance of Hidden Figures.  It first reveals the existence of these marvelous, brilliant women, and then ponders the environment that not only made their jobs (and lives!) more difficult, but resulted in their stories remaining untold for all these years.  These three women battled for respect and equality in small steps, with an undying devotion to intellectual achievement and a keen sense of justice.  It wasn’t easy, quick, or painless – but is was an advancement.  Hopefully, in the same way, the success of Hidden Figures shows Hollywood that audiences yearn for these kinds of characters and their stories.

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