Hidden Figures opens up with a rare and deeply moving sight. A young black couple being told their daughter is a genius. We then see a young Katherine (Lidya Jewett), effortlessly doing complicated mathematical equations on the chalkboard to a stunned classroom.
It’s a scene we’ve seen countless time with little white boys. But I don’t recall ever seeing a child math prodigy as played by a little girl. Much less a little black girl. If you’re wondering what the difference is, the difference is all the difference.
The movie fast forwards to 1967 to three black women and a broken-down car on the side of the road. A grown Katherine (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy (Octavia Spencer), and Mary (Janelle Monae) try in vain to get the car started. A police car rolls up next to them. The three women tense.
The scene is a microcosm of the movie as a whole. Three black women, each with vastly different personalities and talents, finding their own way to deal with their life. Which is to say how to be both black and a woman in 1960’s Virginia and work for NASA. The fact that the movie never shies away from this core principle while also being one of the most enjoyable times at the movies right now is a testament to Hollywood Studio filmmaking at its finest.
Hidden Figures is a sly, hokey, fun movie that shows there is more than one way to both protest and to fight institutionalized racism. The movie shies away from big dramatic speeches, for the most part, save for one scene with Taraji P. Henson’s Katherine reaches a breaking point and lets out a frustrated rant about what she goes through, just to use the bathroom.
The director Theodore Melfi, and his screenwriter Allison Schroeder, don’t give us grandstanding and melodramatic moments. Instead, they ply us with scene after scene of casual racism. The white characters of Hidden Figures are not Klansmen or virulent foul-mouthed bigots. They are everyday people treating Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary as they have always been treated. The ladies belong to a sub-section of NASA. A group of black women who double check the math of the engineers. They were the ‘colored computers.’
It’s important to understand there were white computers too. The white computers would dole out the top assignments to their own then and then give the grunt work to the ‘colored computers.’ At one one point, Dorothy asks the white supervisor Vivian (Kirsten Dunst) when she will get promoted. Dorothy is doing the work of a supervisor without the title or the pay. Like most people in bureaucratic positions, she was only meant to be temporary but has now just become her job. Vivian shrugs her off. She doesn’t care about Dorothy or her girls.
To Vivian, the ‘colored computers’ are comparable to the giant hulking hibernating beast of an IBM. They are things. There’s a point late in the movie where Vivian tells Dorothy, “I really don’t have anything against you.” To which Dorothy smiles. “I know. I know you believe that.” Throughout the movie even though, historically, computers have been people, we are shown that Dorothy, Katherine, and Mary are not.
Racism is not a noun. It’s a verb. People are not racist. But people can be racist. When Katherine enters her new office, all the white men stare at her as if she’s lost. They do not stare at her when she leaves. They do not even say or do anything when it’s made clear she works here now. No one says “Hi,” no one comes over to tell her when lunch break is. The bad guy in Lethal Weapon 2 is not the bad guy because he’s racist. He’s the bad guy because he’s a murdering, raping bastard, who says racist things. The fact that so many of my fellow white people still don’t understand this shows how important popcorn movies like Hidden Figures are.
Katherine’s boss, Al (Kevin Costner) is not a brain dead Southerner. He’s a top mind in his department trying to invent Math so we can beat the Russians in the space race. When Katherine is assigned to his department, he doesn’t care she’s black. He also doesn’t realize the only ‘colored’ bathroom is a half mile on the other side of campus.
When Al is told of this, he is stunned. Again he’s not terrible; he just didn’t know. His reaction and his solution are pitch perfect. It’s a nice dramatic moment that isn’t prolonged or overplayed.
There are whites who are sympathetic. Mary’s supervisor, suggests she become an Engineer. She tersely reminds him she is a black woman in 1967 Virginia. He responds by reminding her that he is a Polish Jew and immigrant who escaped Nazi Germany, both his parents killed in concentration camps, and now he’s an engineer at NASA. “We live in impossible times!” He says.
Hidden Figures knows full well the story it’s telling. The story of what it was like to be a black woman in America. Not all the resistance comes from well meaning or ignorant white folk. When Mary’s husband Levi (Aldis Hodge) tells Mary her desire to be an engineer is a pipe dream, it’s not out of any kind of internal misogyny. We know this because when she comes home to see him watching the news about a bombing of Birmingham bus, with the kids watching, she scolds him for it. He simply replies, “They need to see this.” What he’s saying is not that he doesn’t believe in her. It’s that he’s scared for her.
Later the two share a quiet moment and Levi presents her with mechanical pencils. It’s a tender and romantic moment. Monae and Hodge play it beautifully. Of all the couples in the movie, theirs feels the most fleshed out, the most lived in.
This maybe because theirs is the only one we see past the honeymoon stage. Katherine is busy trying to fend off the attentions of a new arrival in town. Colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali) who after being dressed down by Katherine by expressing shock that she can handle such work at NASA, seems in awe of her. It’s refreshing to see a strong, confident black man allowed to express a nurturing side.
If anyone gets the short shrift, it’s Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy. Her home life is almost completely ignored, save for a scene where she and her boys sneak into the white section of the library to steal a book about computer programming. When asked if stealing is wrong Dorothy gives a familiar speech about taxes and public space, and you can’t steal what you pay for.
Hidden Figures is predictable regarding basic plot points. Both because we know history and also because most of us have seen a movie before. But it surprises us in the little moments. There’s a joy in the movie this ebullient. This is not an 80’s power ballad of anti-racism like 42. The bad guys don’t get their comeuppance; they don’t even get fired.
Kevin Costner is carving out a nice little sub-genre for himself: White, buzzcut, short sleeved white dress shirt government worker. I don’t know what it is about Costner and these types of characters, but they just go together like coke and coffee. (Don’t ask me to explain.) Costner growls and paces while exuding the cool calm of his persona he’s so famous for.
Much will be written about Taraji P. Henson, and most of it will be deserved. Her performance is a little too mannered at times, but she rattles off the math stuff with ease and charm. Her performance anchors the movie.
But the real breakout star is Janelle Monae. Her Mary is a spark of life and fierce intelligence. Monae’s presence is a force to be reckoned with. She commands our attention even if she’s not the center of the frame.
Her scenes with Henson and Spencer are some of the most fun of the movie. Most movies have to tell you over and over their characters are friends. With these three it’s apparent from the first scene. They behave like friends; they talk like friends, they even fight like friends. This is a testament to Henson, Spencer, and Monae, who make it all look so easy.
Hidden Figures is a wonderfully fun movie. Then again almost anything regarding space has my interest immediately. Hidden Figures gives a story about how we tried to race the Russians to space and also make subtle statements about the complex systemic racial attitudes of our past and how they shape our grandparents and parents, and us. Plus it’s a helluva lot of fun. Anytime a movie can do all that at once is fine by me.