Around the release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a Twitter debate seemed to rage around the right over the politicising of Star Wars. #DumpStarWars seemed slightly ridiculous, but I wonder how the same people might respond to Hidden Figures. The very existence of the film’s protagonists is a political act. Though I’m slightly disappointed the Screen Unseen wasn’t Jackie, Hidden Figures has similarities: it creates a new narrative of the 1960s, recontextualising the dominant male narrative as a female narrative.
Nearly five decades after Apollo 11, space cinema continues to inspire. The fact we sent man to the moon in a vessel is remarkable. NASA’s funding may be a struggle; we may not be on Mars yet; but the arc of history is slow.
We sent man to the moon because of the calculations of black women working at the Langley Research Center in a segregated state. That itself is perhaps more remarkable.
Like Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) attempting to comprehend the heavily redacted document given to her, we must navigate between the lines in history to find forgotten voices. Alongside 12 Years a Slave (2013), Moonlight and Fences, more African American-led narratives are being brought to the screen, often led by black producers, cutting across white cultural hegemony.
Hidden Figures feels like progress.
The Help (2011) may have created a strong portrait of African-American segregation in Mississippi, but it was ultimately a white narrative, filtered through the perspectives of Skeeter (Emma Stone) and a white writer and director. The Dish (2000) illuminated the unheard voices of Apollo 11, but those unheard voices were white Australian men. Often, mainstream black narratives have a tendency to sanitise themselves; in Red Tails (2012), we learn of the Tuskegee Airmen’s involvement in WWII, yet the film exempts itself from depicting strong racial resentment and controversial politics of the period.
In the backdrop of a Trump administration so vitriolic to the existence of minorities and women, this is exactly the narrative we need. The Help still clung onto a post-racial present where we have cured racism, decades after the demise of segregation. Hidden Figures has sympathetic white characters – but as the minority, not the rule, in a world dominated by entrenched racism and segregation. Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) gives leniency and the benefit of the doubt to Katherine, but she is still granted agency within her own narrative. The late John Glenn (Glen Powell) stages an unintentional war against the minimisation of black women in NASA, shaking our protagonists’ hands amid press coverage on the runway against the instincts of everyone else, whilst granting Katherine a new job to double check the stats before he launches off into space. Harrison and Glenn never overshadow the narrative: it is not theirs to have; Glenn’s story was already told in The Right Stuff (1983).
Working as human computers in NASA, Katherine, Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) and Mary (Janelle Monae) are never seen as people – they’re the disembodied voice of Siri, able to fit in your pocket, attending to one’s every need, stripping them of any personality or humanity. As women, they may never be considered fit for the workplace. As black women, they may never be considered as fully people. They become trash, equal to a stack of their work stuck in the trashcan by Al.
In 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), humanity only launched into space because the first ape threw the first bone in combat; here, the agent of progress is a stick of chalk, transitioning between bone and spacecraft as Al hands Katherine the chalk as though from God to Adam in The Creation of Adam (1512). Our protagonists are not just black women – they’re mathematicians. Culturally, we celebrate the male genius, hailing the efforts of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind (2001) and Alan Turing in The Imitation Game (2014). That is not to say we shouldn’t hail the efforts of a schizophrenic, or a gay man screwed over by his country – but to tell young black girls that they can change history, and be launched off in a rocket ship to outer space, is very powerful indeed.
Like the technological scepticism of an Adam Curtis documentary, the enemy of the film is IBM, attempting to murder our protagonists just as HAL did in 2001. Hidden Figures, set in 1961, exists in a transitory window between human computers and digital ones: yet as the film makes clear, the digital computer can never be depended upon in isolation. The women under the tutorage of Dorothy Vaughn must cannibalise themselves in service of the machine, working overtime to facilitate the launch of the IBMs, eliminating their own job security. Where in The Help black narratives were only allowed to be told because Skeeter was ‘generous’ enough to publish them, Katherine is constantly split between crediting herself as co-author on documents only to have them rejected, or erasing her own existence from history.
Looking back on the 1960s, its easy to focus attention on one paradigm over another: on one side, social reforms, NASA, culture, fashion and LSD; on another, nuclear annihilation, systemic racism, Vietnam and assassinations. NASA is defined by astronauts, flags, the dream of Kennedy and the war against Russia, removed from the context of segregation. High school never taught us how segregation played out, only a century after emancipation, as a handful of states refused to follow the Supreme Court’s mandate.
Here, we see the fringes of wider battles of the Civil Rights Movement – on television, we see coverage of a racist bus bombing; Katherine feels distraught at her kids seeing this, but her partner Jim insists that they must watch, and understand what it means to be black in the United States. Our protagonists walk past a race riot as police intervene, batons in hand. We never see the beatings play out; we never see any lynchings. The N-word is never spoken. But this is not the film’s focus: it’s a PG rated film about NASA.
Racism manifests in subtle ways: where The Help presented going to a segregated bathroom as painful, deemed an ‘unclean’ act, here it is amplified, as Katherine takes a 40 minute walk across the NASA campus, folders of calculations in hand, to go to the solitary colored bathroom. Elevated to working in the office, Katherine becomes subject to the disbelief of white male co-workers, defined as a spectacle, her colourful dress drowning out an office of white shirts and black ties. It is a joy that, unlike The Help, Hidden Figures devotes so much of its runtime to making white people uncomfortable. Even when Katherine is granted the privilege to attend a board meeting, treated with some level of respect, her calculations are met not with applause but jokes. The frame minimises Katherine’s role, blocked out of view by Al, impossible to be seen.
It persists through complacency: Katherine, Dorothy and Mary may be the best of the best working in NASA, but to the average white man, there is no material benefit nor payrise to showing basic respect and human decency. Paul (Jim Parsons) refuses to ever go against protocol in a workplace which has never employed women in major roles, leading to consternation with Al and a refusal to enact change. Yet as Katherine makes abundantly clear to him, “there’s no protocol for a man circling the Earth.”
As a woman in the workplace, Vivian (Kirsten Dunst) shows how deeply the status quo penetrates. Gender equality acts as a form of politeness when objections to black women working in NASA are raised, softened to being because of their gender, even perpetuated within the black community by Jim. Vivian, blind to the systemic racism within herself, never embraces femininity nor treats Katherine as an equal or friend; becoming an extension of the white patriarchy, complicit within their injustices, never advocating for her own struggle for gender equality.
Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa), a Jewish veteran of the Holocaust working on the project, having survived pogroms and extermination, symbolises the hope of the future for African Americans. Jewish Americans rewrote American culture and politics: Stan Lee created a superhero empire; Robert Oppenheimer cracked open the atom and gave birth to the nuclear bomb; Mel Brooks made icons of American cinema. If Zielinski, in 20 years, has come this far, why can’t African Americans?
When we narrativise the Civil Rights Movement, we often focus on individual, extraordinary figures, like Rosa Parks, MLK, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, whilst forgetting smaller, forgotten voices, who played just as instrumental a part. Rosa Parks was far from the only black woman. Small acts of rebellion are central to the struggle. The film’s protagonists may be exceptions rather than the rule, but there were still thousands of black women working for NASA in the 1960s, each with their own narrative.
In retroactive joy, the opening scene introduces Katherine, Dorothy and Mary, their broken-down car on the side of the road as they drive to work, pulled over by a white cop. Today, we might expect to see the three beaten and shot, but the film twists this, as he escorts them to the NASA facility, chasing after his vehicle at breakneck speed as they revel in the miracle of being three black women chasing a cop in 1961.
Change is only able to come when one demands change; just as with man’s footsteps on the Moon, it requires “one small step” to make a “giant leap for mankind”. But as with Cathy’s involvement with the NAACP in Far from Heaven (2002), change depends upon the willingness of white people. In her courtroom case for the right to an education, Mary makes a personal plea to the white judge to allow her to study night classes in a segregated school that refuses to even acknowledge the existence of women, for him to be the first and go down in history. It may never express the same emotional power as a similar scene in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), but it’s still important. In response to Katherine’s powerful, rain-soaked demand for respect and sympathy from her male co-workers, Al makes fighting segregation a personal issue, removing “COLORED” labels from coffee machines and removing the sign from the women’s bathroom with a wrench.
The tragedy is, this feels like fantasy. Al would receive a talking to. Other southern NASA institutions wouldn’t follow suit. Someone would go back in there with a screwdriver and reinstate the sign. Yet in the midst of transgender bathroom debates, the question over whether bathrooms need a race or a gender for the most basic of human acts still speaks a power.
All the film’s protagonists desire is parity. To learn programming, Dorothy must venture outside the Colored section of the library to find a book on FORTEAN, be shouted at by a librarian, pulled outside by an aggressive white guard, and hide the book in her bag which she bought with her taxes anyway. In doing so, she appears to turn the first IBM on ever. Our protagonists must work above and beyond their male coworkers, finding as many loopholes as possible, in order to just keep up with them. To rise above, Mary must apply to a degree that isn’t open to her.
Hidden Figures is a story of both regression and progression: each small step forward only brings our protagonists one step back. In the most illuminating example of this, Katherine demands the unaffordable pearls that are an essential part of her uniform she’s meant to have on day one; she only ever gets them when she leaves the job, out of the kindness of white people. Even when she attends, she is marginalised, unable to watch the mission that she ensured happened.
We understand our protagonists as fully formed characters, with their own personalities; Katherine is embedded within black culture, attending church sermons preaching of the struggle, living as a mother yet as far more than just that, with the same struggles of finding time between work and family as any other adult, with her own developing relationships. The soundtrack refuses to evoke white music of the period, instead opting for new songs by Pharrell Williams.
Yet directed by the white guy who did St. Vincent (2014), Hidden Figures will never carry the intensity and anger of a Spike Lee joint, or of Beyonce’s unapologetic Lemonade (2016). It may not do anything remarkably new either: it is not the definitive account of the Civil Rights Movement, nor is it the definitive film of the Space Race. The film never has the budget to recreate rocket launch-offs or shuttles recovered from the ocean, instead relying upon an uneasy mix between CGI and archival footage, relaying historical information through awkward expositional text. Mid-way through the film, as with how For All Mankind (1989) opens, we see JFK’s iconic speech:
We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. […] We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
Maybe ABC’s The Astronaut Wives Club (2015) already explored the struggle of women amidst the Space Race. Timeless (2016) already invoked Katherine Johnson’s role within NASA just a few months ago.
Not every scene works perfectly, nor is every line of dialogue perfectly written. But that is besides the point. Hidden Figures never strives to be a masterpiece of American cinema.
But it is heartwarming. It is essential.