Black History Month: Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures does its job well, telling the uplifting story of three trailblazing black women at NASA in the ’60s by showing some Obviously Racist Policies that the main characters Resist With Dignity until Good-at-Heart White People learn some Valuable Lessons and Civil Rights Are Won and Racism Defeated, all in Tasteful Period Costumes. Well, that’s a little bit how the movie works, and it’s no surprise that it does; if you’re going to get a major studio picture made about race in America, and pick up those Oscar nominations, you have to take the prestige approach. But what I liked best about this movie was that it doesn’t just stick to the template. There are wonderfully powerful and subversive moments throughout Hidden Figures.


First, let’s look at one of the more obvious moments: when Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) tells her would-be suitor Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali) where to put his unenlightened ideas about what women are capable of, when he expresses surprise that she works at NASA. She tells him how vital she is on the team and how she came top of her class at college. In a later scene, he apologizes for underestimating her and asks for another chance, and they go on to court and marry. A simple series of events, but how often do we see instead the woman diminishing her accomplishments to make the man feel more important, letting some casual sexism slide because she’s a single mother of three and should be grateful for what attention she can get? It was refreshing to see Katherine set things straight from the get-go, and to see Jim graciously learn and change from that interaction, and even more to see that people can have a confrontation like that and still go on to have a loving relationship. Don’t make yourself small or let important things slide just to be with someone; if you’re going to be good together, there’s no time for that.

Keeping in the vein of solid marital relationships, let’s turn to Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) and her husband Levi (Aldis Hodge). Mary wants to be an engineer, but NASA institutes some new rules to make it difficult for her to become one; she has to take certain classes, but the only place in the state that offers those classes is a white school and despite the supposed end of segregation years before, she needs to get a judge to rule that she’s allowed to take the classes. Levi thinks she won’t be allowed to get ahead, and he discourages her from taking the case to court. But she presses ahead anyway, and the day she goes to court, he buys her a mechanical pencil to use in her engineering classes. It’s another simple series of scenes, but movies rarely show men admitting they’re wrong and supporting their wives without showing those men as emasculated and their wives as overbearing shrews. Here, we see two equal partners disagree over something and resolve their disagreement.

Even the scene of all the couples dancing at a house party is quietly surprising. We see Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) rest her head on her husband’s chest as they dance together. We don’t learn her husband’s name or see him again, but this little glimpse of the two of them together shows a happily married couple enjoying an evening with friends. The media relentlessly shows black families as “broken,” and black fathers as absent, and Hidden Figures deliberately counters those representations, showing loving black families, attentive black fathers, supported black mothers and wives.

I like that the movie shows how little the main characters were interested in participating in the civil rights movement or politics. My personal belief is that the personal is political and we all need to be actively involved in breaking down systems of injustice, but I know and love a lot of people who don’t see the world that way; they just want to live their lives without interference. Levi thinks his kids need to witness the brutality reported on the news but Mary doesn’t want her kids to have to go through that (even though she is vocal about injustices against black folks when she’s with other adults); Dorothy physically shields her kids from political protests on their way to the library; Katherine keeps her humiliating struggles at work separate from her home life. But when push comes to shove for each of these women, they resist and insist on changes: Katherine gets her name on her reports, Mary wins the court case and becomes an engineer, Dorothy teaches herself computer code and becomes the first black supervisor in all of NASA. Wide-ranging changes in values and policies are crucial, but we need simultaneous changes at the individual level. To paraphrase Mary in her speech to the judge in her court case, we need “firsts” so that people see what can be done.

Now for the part of the move that did not sit well with me — the bathroom break issue. I totally believed that Katherine would ask where the bathroom was and the white woman secretary would say “I don’t know where your [colored] bathroom is”; this unwillingness of white people to empathize, to not see prejudice because it doesn’t affect them, is entirely believable. What isn’t believable is the scene later on, when Katherine’s boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) learns that she has to walk a half mile to use the “colored ladies'” bathroom, and he marches down there and beats the “colored” sign down with a crowbar and declares that everyone pees the same color at NASA. No way is that how it went down, and with all the Good Guy moments that Harrison gets in this movie, no way he needs this dramatic one as well. As I’ve learned, this scene was indeed totally made up for the movie, but even worse, the real story is better — Katherine never made that journey. She always refused to use the “colored ladies'” and just used the “white” bathrooms. Katherine quietly but resolutely made her own resistance and change, and she didn’t need a white man to make that okay for her. This is what happens when you take a book by a black woman and give it to two white people to write the screenplay, and a white man to direct.

Okay but let’s end on a high note: my favorite moment from the whole movie. One thing Hidden Figures does well is show how you don’t have to be a Confederate flag-waving, Dixie-loving caricature to be racist, and that the quiet, persistent racism of everyday white people is what maintains the system of racism. Segregationist policies created separate bathrooms for whites and blacks; anonymous coworkers put up a separate coffee pot for Katherine to use; Dorothy is kicked out of the well-funded white library and told to try her luck at the “colored” one, where she’ll never find the coding book that will allow her to advance in her career; Mary literally has to take a case to court to be able to take a class to advance in her career; Harrison chooses not to see much of what goes on in his office and can claim he never knew. All of these are things that white people chose to participate in or allow. All of these are choices white people made to uphold a racist system because that’s just the way things were. They’re not to blame, they’re just doing what everyone else does, but don’t you dare call them racist! Sound familiar? We hear this nonsense all the time today. (See also: sexism.)

Anyway, so the moment in the movie that underscores this: Dorothy is in the now-integrated bathroom with her boss, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), a white woman who repeatedly refuses to promote Dorothy to management despite the fact that she’s been doing the work of a supervisor for months. Vivian has all sorts of “that’s just the way things are here” reasons for this, but Dorothy persists. She knows what she deserves. So in this bathroom, with the ongoing supervisor issue hanging over them, Vivian turns to Dorothy and says, “I don’t have anything against you.” Dorothy smiles sadly and says, “I know. [beat] I know you believe that.” She walks out the door. AND FUCKING SCENE.

That pause — just long enough for me to think “Oh no, don’t soothe her delicate white lady feelings” — and then the killer. Because that’s the thing: we all see ourselves as the heroes of our own stories, and heroes aren’t bad things like racist or sexist. White people, men, all of us who are in some position of privilege over another, don’t see ourselves as actively holding anything against that other. What are we supposed to do about it anyway? Remove the barriers instead of pretending they’re not there, that’s what. Open up the management program, bring the black woman onto the task force to safely launch a man into space, give access to the engineering classes.

And today? Restore key parts of the Voting Rights Act struck down in 2013, end the underfunding and shuttering of predominately non-white schools, vote into office the people who will commit to do these things, make the person who just told that racist joke uncomfortable by pointing out how unfunny it was, call in to your local news station when they use coded language talking about “urban” problems, buy art created by people of color. The list goes on and on, because the system is made possible by individuals supporting it. We need mass change, but as Hidden Figures shows, we also need individuals chipping away at that system. We need the trailblazers, and we need the people who get out of their way.



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