Directed by Theodore Melfi
Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe
View the trailer here.
A fanboy friend of mine tells me that, years ago at an early Star Trek fandom convention, Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura in the original cast, told the audience—as though in letters writ large in fire—the story of several brilliant black women who had helped NASA get off the ground in its early days. The audience, being not only Trek fans but science fiction fans in general, were also mostly science wonks, tech nerds, and space program junkies; a number of them either worked for NASA themselves or knew somebody who did. They advised Ms. Nichols, or so the story goes, that the tale she was telling them was well known.
Among that specialized audience, that may be the case. But in the wider world, not so much. You’ll find no reference to it, for example, in The Right Stuff, the sprawling 1983 film adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s book of the same title; I read the book some years back and don’t remember encountering this particular subplot either. Well, now it can be told.
In 1961, a trio of black women are employed at the NASA facility in Hampton, Virginia. Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), an astounding mathematical brainbox, works with a group of other black female “computers” in the segregated plant. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is the group’s de facto supervisor, meaning she does the work but doesn’t have the title, the pay, or the respect. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) is determined to become NASA’s first black engineer, despite the ever-moving goalposts of the requirements she must meet.
The barriers to their advancement are considerable. This is the South prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and the race-based dismissal and condescension the women face from their white coworkers and superiors is reflexive, casual, and constant. The fact that they’re women is no help, either, but by far the bigger barrier is the racial one. MLK’s marches are going on in the background, though; everybody knows change is coming, and everybody seems nervous about it.
Then, too, the nature of their work environment, and of the type of people they’re working with, creates other kinds of problems. In a rush to get a man into space before the Soviets do, these poindexters have their eyes on the stars but their heads up their @$$e$. Nobody, for example, has bothered to check whether the door to the designated new computer room is big enough for their gigantic new IBM computer to fit through. In the same way, when Katherine finally gets out of the segregated section of the NASA campus to work in the main number-crunching room of the Mercury program, nobody has taken into consideration the fact that the nearest bathroom for “colored” women is a 20-minute walk back to the building where she used to work. In a fine and eloquent rant, Katherine finally calls it to their attention.
In addition to our heroines, Hidden Figures has a strong supporting cast. Kevin Costner is Al Harrison, Katherine’s Mercury supervisor, who occasionally has to have more earthbound matters explained to him. The scene in which he uses a crowbar to remove a particular sign prompts me to wonder if this isn’t a dramatization of something that was done in real life with a memo to a maintenance man, but it’s certainly cinematic. Houston’s own Jim Parsons is Paul Stafford, a fictional composite character who embodies the type of attitudes that confronted Katherine and the others. Kirsten Dunst is Vivian Mitchell, a human roadblock in Dorothy’s path. The scene in which they converse in a desegregated bathroom—a first for both of them—is brilliantly done: when they’re discussing business, they address each other’s reflection in the mirror, and only face each other eye-to-eye when they have something personal to say.
In the face of their frustrations, the talents of these remarkable women can’t be held back, and it’s a joy to see how they surmount their individual challenges. The subplot of Katherine’s courtship and marriage is not only sweet, but serves as a reminder that family and faith, not just technology and military might, made America great. The success of the Mercury program is celebrated as an accomplishment of all Americans of all races. Hidden Figures serves as a welcome partial antidote to the past eight long, sad years of an administration that deliberately tried to divide Americans along racial lines.