Vivian Mitchell: You know, despite what you may think, I don’t have a problem with y’all.
Dorothy Vaughan: I know. I know that you believe that.
I was lucky enough to get tickets to an advance screening of Hidden Figures last night. The movie is, for those not in the know, the story of the black women at NASA whose mathematical computations were crucial to America’s success in the Space Race. The astronauts may have had all the glory, and the engineers may have had movies like Apollo 13 made about them, but the black women who actually did the grunt work — crunching the numbers to ensure that the rockets launched and landed safely — never got their due. Until now.
Hidden Figures is based on a book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, and looks at the lives of three of the women profiled in the source material: Katherine G. Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (played by the Afro-futuristic hip-hop queen of my heart, Janelle Monáe).
Even though they each bring something different to the table, all three women face the same challenge: living in a world where people refuse to acknowledge that how they treat you is a problem.
Dorothy is the head of the women’s computing department, and struggles with being given the responsibilities of management without the concomitant job title or pay raise. Her foil is Vivian Mitchell, played by Kristen Dunst as the middle-management embodiment of White Feminism — that is, the kind of white woman who’ll only give a black woman respect when she wants something in return. Pragmatic, mechanically-minded, and forward-thinking, Dorothy instantly recognizes that the new-fangled IBM computers in the office are the way of the future and strategically positions herself and her department so that they can take advantage of this new technology, rather than risk unemployment through automation.
Mary is a member of Dorothy’s department and gets assigned to the engineers assessing the aerodynamics of the capsule that will house John Glenn during orbit. After encouragement by one of her coworkers to study to become an engineer, she has roadblocks thrown in her way (by Vivian Mitchell, no less). Outspoken and canny, Mary convinces a judge to give her special permission to attend the required classes, which are held in a white-only school.
Finally, there’s Katherine. She’s another member of Dorothy’s department, but her keen mathematical prowess lands her a coveted yet extremely stressful spot as part of Al Harrison’s (Kevin Costner’s) team, who are directly responsible for plotting the launch window and trajectory of John Glenn’s orbital mission. Katherine may have a gift for analytical geometry, but her colleagues at NASA view her as nothing more than a glorified calculator confirming already-verified numbers.
All three women face systemic barriers towards career advancement and respect. Dorothy isn’t getting paid what she deserves. Mary is denied an opportunity that’s available to her white male colleagues by default. In perhaps the most blatant example, Katherine’s ability to work is seriously impeded by the lack of a “coloured ladies” washroom in Harrison’s office: she must walk half a mile across the NASA campus to relieve herself. Since her workload is so heavy and her deadlines are so tight, she’s forced to take her math with her into the bathroom in order to finish her tasks on time.
Of course, no one else in the office really cares except when they notice that she’s away from her desk for an inordinate amount of time. That’s the beauty of privilege: that people in power don’t realize something is a problem for you until it becomes a problem for them, too.
And because it’s so easy to ignore problems until they inconvenience those in power, people have a vested interest in ignoring the fact that they’re hidden in plain sight. That they’re built into the system itself.
The movie illustrates how systemic these barriers are by showing that nearly every white person in the film is complicit in their maintenance. A white librarian tries to shoo Dorothy away from the math and computer books in the library because those are in the “whites only” section. (Dorothy, in a canny act of disobedience, manages to smuggle a book about Fortran programming into her purse before the librarian notices.) A white coworker immediately mistakes Katherine for a cleaning lady and gives her a trash can to empty when she first reports for work in Al Harrison’s office. “Coloured only” bus seats and water fountains are in plain sight.
One of the movie’s chief virtues is that it doesn’t hide that truth. Everyone takes part in racism, even if no one explicitly uses the N-word.
However, despite these admirable attempts to illustrate how everyone is complicit in a broken system, Hidden Figures is still a Hollywood film, and thus gives in to certain conventions.
For example, when Mary is encouraged to become an engineer, she initially brushes her coworker’s words aside by saying that as a black woman, there’s no point in her trying. It’s impossible, she says. So what, he replies, I’m Jewish and my parents died in the Holocaust, yet we’re both here working on getting a man into space. Nothing is impossible! Considering that Mary’s interlocutor has less than a dozen more lines in the entire film after this, his dialogue is a bit on the nose; it’s clear that he’s here only to fulfill that particular beat of the script.
Other parts of the script are also predictable. Do we have a scene where Katherine gives rise to her frustration and in a cathartic burst of rage berates her boss because there’s no bathroom nearby she can use? Yes! Do we have a scene where said boss, chastened and enlightened, does something dramatic and symbolic by taking a crowbar to the “coloured ladies” bathroom sign as a way to desegregate the campus? Yes! Do we have a scene where Katherine has to prove her mathematical worth at the very last minute, with little time to spare, in order to make sure that John Glenn doesn’t die in space? Yes!
On top of that, the movie’s treatment of the mathematical work itself is all surface-level: Katherine writes quickly on chalkboards while her colleagues look on in awe and amazement. People discuss using the “Euler method” to solve a tricky problem from a new perspective. However, there’s no explanation of how the math works; it’s treated as something magical, rather than practical. It feels like the movie is so caught up in burnishing the legacy of these women that they’re wiping away all of the sweat. All biopics do this, of course, but that sweat, that humanity, is what I really want to see.
Despite this, there’s one final thing about Hidden Figures that I’d like to note, and it’s about costume design.
Hidden Figures is the story of three women of colour fighting against systemic oppression. Even if there is no single antagonist, those forces manifest themselves in the white people who control and undermine them in different ways — the man who doesn’t want Katherine to join military briefings or claim co-authorship on papers, or the woman who refuses to value Dorothy’s labour.
All of their costumes fall within a very narrow colour scheme: black, white, grey, perhaps a brief flash of pastel rose or peach. Those colours are muted. Faint.
But the black characters? The black characters are literally people of — and in — colour. They wear mustard yellow shirts and bright pink lipstick. Their clothes are army green. Seafoam. Indigo. Sapphire blue. Chocolate brown. Plaid, even! They pop against the screen; they radiate vitality and community.
Most importantly, look at the outfits that Katherine wears when she’s at work, and how she is positioned relative to her white colleagues. Her skirt suits and dresses are teal, magenta, indigo, garnet. They are bright loci of colour within an astringent, moon-grey landscape. There’s another name for those colours: jewel tones.
Wherever Katherine sits or stands, it seems she is perpetually in the centre, flanked by those pale faces and shirts. It’s almost as if the movie is saying that if space exploration is the epitome of human endeavour, the crown achievement, then Katherine is the jewel set within that crown’s brow.
Update, Jan 7:
One of the things I really don’t address in my review above is how much time the movie devotes to happiness, and not just struggle. You see black characters having fun together, drinking, dancing, playing cards, and attending potlucks. But other reviewers do talk about this, so I also wanna point you in their direction:
Katherine Johnson’s Amazing Work — and Romance — Take Flight in Hidden Figures – Jenn Wattley, Heroes and Heartbreakers
I Want to Take My Womb Out of Retirement and Give Birth to a Black Daughter So That She Can See Hidden Figures – Ijeoma Oluo, The Stranger