Many film directors would have taken a graver tone as they recreated the story of the three African American women – Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughn – whose vital contributions to NASA made it possible to complete its first orbital spaceflight. Theodore Melfi, on the other hand, saw no harm in spicing up his tribute with a little cheekiness. In one of Hidden Figures‘ best scenes, when the women’s car breaks down on the way to Langley Research Center and an officer pulls up asking for identification, Katherine hands him her card and mutters solemnly, “NASA, sir.” “I had no idea they hired–” He nearly says, “Negroes,” but Ms. Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) irons out the insult with a slick reply: “There are quite a few . . . women working in the space program.”
Hidden Figures hinges on the performances of its three gifted leads: Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, and Janelle Monáe. Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughn, who heads NASA’s West Computing Unit without the official title or the pay. The film follows her struggle to be promoted by NASA’s incumbent personnel supervisor, Mrs. Mitchell, played by Kirsten Dunst with just the right pinch of petty racism. We see how Vaughn’s team, segregated from the all-white East Computing Group, is forced to work out of a dingy warehouse space despite the vital work it does for NASA.
Taraji P. Henson plays the film’s central figure, Katherine Johnson, one of the “human computers” working in the West Unit. A math prodigy from a young age, she is selected to be part of the Space Task group aiming to put a man into space before the Russians. Despite being singled out as NASA’s most gifted mind in analytical geometry, Johnson is still met with aloofness and disdain by her colleagues, particularly Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), who refuses to put her name on any of NASA’s publications. For Katherine, each day at Langley involves an act of either tiptoeing around the office trying to avoid contact with her coworkers, or racing half an hour across town to use the nearest “colored only” restroom. One day, when she gets up to use the coffee machine to the horror of the entire room, we are reminded of an age when segregation was so customary and pervasive that even the slightest intimation of racial mixing delivered a psychological shock.
Another blunt reminder of the era comes with Janelle Monáe’s performance as Mary Jackson, an engineer barred from enrolling in a university training program due to Virginia’s Jim Crow laws. She is part of the team designing the Mercury capsule that will send John Glenn into space, and it’s her supervisor, Mr. Zielinski, who urges her to pursue a track to become a certified NASA engineer. In the end, she finds a solution, successfully petitioning a judge to take night classes at a local high school. She also delivers a satisfying punch to societal racism and sexism in a conversation with Mr. Zielinski: “Let me ask,” he says to her, “If you were a white male, would you wish to be an engineer?” “I wouldn’t have to,” she replies, “I’d already be one.”
While the dialogue in Hidden Figures may sometimes seem a bit too formulaic and feel-good to be considered revolutionary cinema, it takes a genuine look at injustice and makes itself relevant to today’s contemporary debates about race relations. One of its best scenes involves a private bathroom conversation between Dorothy Vaughn and Mrs. Mitchell, who has still not promoted her to supervisor. “I’m not a racist, Ms. Vaughn,” Dunst says haughtily, as Spencer looks at her and asks, “Are you sure about that, Mrs. Mitchell?” before walking out the door. It’s a moment charged with tension – and it’s a question that might be reasonably asked of many people today.
A more overt but wholly genuine moment comes with Katherine’s outburst at the end, when her supervisor, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), accuses her of taking too much time on her breaks. “There are no colored bathrooms in this building, or any building outside the West Campus, which is half a mile away,” she replies, her indignation slowly rising. “Did you know that? And I can’t use one of the handy bikes. Picture that, Mr. Harrisson . . . And I work like a dog day and night, living on coffee from a pot none of you want to touch! So, excuse me if I have to go to the restroom a few times a day.”
Hidden Figures’ memorable “bathroom sprints” come alive with Pharrell Williams’s catchy and all-too-relevant song, “Runnin’,” which weaves comparisons between society’s race for the moon and the race for equality. Williams, who grew up not far from Langley and has committed himself to putting women and African-Americans at the forefront of an industry that has disadvantaged them, said he admired the way Hidden Figures “chipped away at the pro-male narrative that’s out there right now and needs to go.” There is as much a gender component in the film as there is a racial one – a will to reach across all boundaries in the name of brilliance.
The film meant an enormous deal to its three female leads, as it shed light on such a significant story that had remained untold for an astounding 46 years. Octavia Spencer admits in her interview on NBC’s Today that when she first read the script, she thought it was historical fiction. She had thought to herself, “Well, we would have known about it if it were true, right?” She said the fact that the public hadn’t known “hurt to her core” and raised the stakes immensely. Without Katherine Johnson, Spencer noted, the U.S wouldn’t have made it to space the first time, to say nothing of NASA’s subsequent missions. “So that’s real,” she emphasized, “And that is something we have to credit her for and all of those women.”
Long ago, French author Honoré de Balzac posed the paradoxical question, “Is there such a thing as an unknown masterpiece?” More than a hundred years later, Theodore Melfi and his cast have made it clear that there certainly is a thing as unknown (or unrecognized) genius, and that it is the responsibility of the film industry and artists today to shine a light on those extraordinary names that have fallen into obscurity.