Editor’s Note: March 8, 2017 marks both the annual celebration of International Women’s Day and the #DayWithoutAWoman protest actions organized by the activists who brought us the Women’s March. In the spirit of these protests and celebrations, we have asked a guest reviewer to share his thoughts on the film Hidden Figures which recounts the experiences of female scientists of color at NASA during the mid-twentieth century.
At its heart, Theodore Melfi’s 2016 film Hidden Figures is a master study in good acting. Full of joy and grace under pressure, our three protagonists, played by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe, embody the physical and emotional acrobatics necessary to fight against and overcome the social and workplace obstacles encountered daily by women of color in the 1960s. At the same time, the actresses make the dreary whitewashed male-dominated mise-en-scène of NASA come alive with their physical humor and witty retorts. The film’s nominations and awards endorse the quality of the acting: nominations from the Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actress (Spencer) and Best Picture, the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture (Spencer), and the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture (won by Henson). The film also won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture.
Based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s 2016 book of the same name, Hidden Figures focuses on real-life “human computers” from NASA’s all-black and all-female West Area Computing section at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia during the 1960s. Katherine G. Johnson (Henson), Mary Jackson (Monáe), and their fellow computers complete calculations for orbital trajectories, while Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) works as their unofficial supervisor. I must include “unofficial” because, as Spencer’s character reminds her co-workers, she does the work of a supervisor without the pay or title. Indeed, the film draws attention to inequities both inside and outside NASA, whether unequal educational opportunities for Jackson, who wants to become an engineer but has to go to court to win the right to take additional college courses; arbitrary and sexist access rules for Johnson, who is prevented from attending meetings and has her named removed from co-authored reports by her colleague Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons); or unequal treatment by bosses for Vaughan, who has her promotion rejected by her supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst). Johnson eventually joins the Space Task Group, where she meets the head of the group Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Much of the movie involves Johnson confronting the problems that arise from being the only African-American and the only woman in the Space Task Group.
These inequities become even more striking against the backdrop of the film’s production design, cinematography, and music. For example, as Jackson enters the graduate classroom of white men for the first time, her yellow jacket and blouse stands in contrast to—and breathes life into—a room full of stark, dark colors. Taking a seat in the front row (no doubt a nod to Rosa Parks), she exudes confidence, power, and intelligence. Additionally, in several scenes, cinematographer Mandy Walker uses a tracking shot to follow Johnson as she makes her way from the Space Task Group office to the West Area Computing building on the other side of the NASA campus where the only “Colored Bathroom” dwells. Henson plays the bathroom sequences for laughs. However, though viewers often understand the larger inequities facing marginalized ethnic, racial, socioeconomic, and sexual identities, the extended sequences of her dodging cars, hopping over curbs, picking up dropped pencils and papers, and working in the bathroom stalls force viewers to contemplate the daily unnecessary hurdles dealt with by African-Americans during the early years of the Civil Rights Movement. Playing alongside Johnson’s sprints to the bathroom, Pharrell Williams’s song “Runnin’” is representative of the soundtrack. It recalls socially-conscious artists of the period, such as Marvin Gaye or Smokey Robinson, while boasting a distinctly contemporary sound. He sings:
You and I are not different from each other
Shut our eyes, when we slumber I see numbers
Black and white, we’re computers, I ain’t colored
Don’t act like you was there when you wasn’t
As implied in the song, the film critiques a society that bases so much power in surface differences and suggests that our commonalities will eventually bring workplaces—and nations—together.
As with most biopics, Hidden Figures at times takes liberties with facts. For example, NASA abolished segregated facilities in 1958, though the film takes place in 1961. However, in telling this story of determination, faith, and community, Henson, Spencer, and Monáe lend their voices to those whose voices have been erased in American scientific history and assert that a day without a woman is a day without progress, without knowledge, and without courage.
Jamie McDaniel is an Associate Professor of English and teaches courses on film genre and professional writing at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, KS. He has authored several articles on ableism in horror films and tabletop board games and helps students develop their own games in his spare time.