In a scene in Hidden Figures that is all too familiar for Black women viewers, or really anyone from a historically marginalized group, Taraji P. Henson’s character Katherine Johnson rushes to enter the NASA control room where she has just handed off crucial calculations for astronaut John Glenn’s safe return from orbit, and has the door summarily slammed in her face. The camera lingers on Henson’s profile, as she grapples yet again with the devastating knowledge that although she may be a useful “computer” for spitting out numbers that may make missions successful and even save lives, she is still not seen as fully human in the eyes of her peers and superiors. Indeed, in Henson’s capable hands, viewers ourselves experience the physical and emotional pain of being barred from entering the halls of power for absurd reasons beyond one’s control — in this case, race and gender.
Henson/Johnson turns, finally resigned to her fate of yet another inhumane instance of exclusion, and has made her way half-way down the hall, when Al Harrison, her boss (played by Kevin Costner, in his now expertly-practiced white savior role), opens the door, and hurriedly ushers her inside. Henson/Johnson — who will henceforth be referred to as “Katherine” — breathes a sigh of relief, as do we viewers, happy to have dodged yet another barb of the apparent endless stream lobbed at the black female computational geniuses in 1961 Virginia NASA deigned to exploit. The tense atmosphere in the control room becomes the central focus of the story now, as everyone is consumed with getting an endangered John Glenn back to Earth safely. And thus, the overarching message of the film takes over, which uncritically seeps into one’s consciousness and predominates, unless you take a big step back, and look at it objectively. The message goes something like this: In the midst of the hysterical 1960s Cold War Space Race, Americans certainly had squabbles with each other over race, gender, and power, but in the end, we were able to come together in the service of a larger, more noble vision: Conquering the Russians and the threat of their interstellar Communism.
This is the dominant thesis of what has been in my circles, the most talked about movie of 2017. But what is perhaps striking is that, for all the discussion of the film, and the many crucial issues it raises, there has been little to no discussion or critique of its blatant, often over-the-top narrative of nationalism’s ability to trump (yes, I meant that, “Trump”) issues of structural, historical, and institutional oppression. Which is ironic, to say the least, given that the de facto and de jure racism and sexism the film presents are as American as apple pie. Russian Communism sure didn’t invent them, nor keep the movie’s three resilient protagonists from achieving their dreams.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Hidden Figures is a groundbreaking and important film — particularly in its depictions of black life, relationships, and strategies of resistance. And the story it tells, and characters it introduces us to, are long, long overdue for entry into the popular American historical record and imagination. This viewer, at least, was struck by the loving depictions of black families, whether it be Katherine’s parents packing up, moving, and risking it all so that their brilliant daughter can get the education she needs, or Katherine’s single mothering of her own children as an adult. These are images and stories of black America that most Americans rarely if ever have access to. As are the film’s depictions of the romantic relationships between black men and women.
We get so used to ever-present stories of intimate partner violence and of black men striving to define their identities through taking power from black women, that we forget the beautiful stories of black love rooted in real partnership. Of black men who find strong, trailblazing black women incredibly attractive. Mary (Janelle Monae), Dorothy (Octavia Spencer), and Katherine all have black male partners who not only support them in their work, but seem to find their dedication to it sexy (can I say that?). I mean, yes, it’s Mahershala Ali, but that scene where Katherine and her suitor are washing dishes together in the sink and he leans in quietly but firmly to kiss her was downright erotic. When was the last time I’ve seen a loving, sexy gesture like that between two black folks doing something as banal but necessary as the dishes in a major film? Not lately, that’s for sure. And then there’s Mary’s husband (Aldis Hodge), who gets her a carefully wrapped set of mechanical pencils in preparation for her first day of engineering classes at a white school. In my humble opinion, representations of sweetness among black folks are revolutionary, they are so rare in American popular culture. So I appreciated every single one of them in this film.
And we also can’t forget the layered messages Hidden Figures communicates about how best to fight sexism, racism, and other forms of oppression. That was another highlight of the film for me. While Katherine mostly keeps her head down and does her genius-level computations work while the blowhards in her unit block her every attempt to contribute, Mary and Dorothy take different tacks. After she is informed that she will have to take night courses at a local white high school in order to qualify for admission into the University of Virginia’s engineering program (which is just another way to deny her admission), Mary finally decides to fight the segregation in court. She does her research, and appeals to the judge’s ego and again to the centrality of Space Race hysteria, and wins. What this told me was: There is always a bigger fish. Couch your argument inside another that has potentially more personal sway with the powerful, and you may be able to influence them.
But it is Dorothy’s approach to fighting her mistreatment that resonated most with me. A supervisor in duties assigned but not in title or salary, Dorothy is the powerhouse responsible for managing and mentoring all of NASA’s “computers.” But every time she tries to address this inequity, she is rebuffed by her white female supervisor (played masterfully by Kirsten Dunst, who has that shifty, “I can’t be bothered with your whining now, and anyway, I have it bad myself cause I’m a woman,” thing that women of color find so maddening in white women down cold. I gritted my teeth every time she was in a scene).
Dorothy is the one who divines that NASA is moving away from human “computers,” towards digital ones, and thus determines that she and her entire team of black women will be SOL and out of jobs unless they figure something out quick. And figure it out, Dorothy does. It’s rare moment at the movies when I’m like, “Dang, I know so many sisters like that!” But when Dorothy got herself the book on FORTRAN, snuck into the IBM computer lab after hours, fixed the machine the white dudes couldn’t get working, was then offered the temporary job to run said computer, and then turned it down unless NASA also hired her entire team of black women computers, I was like, “Yes! This woman is from The School of Make It Work, and Find a Way Out of No Way,” which black folks and black women especially, have had to master since we were first dragged here. And that show of solidarity, the moment when Dorothy tells Vivian (Dunst), “I can’t do the job without my team,” is significant. She is risking her own career and well-being for her community — something else black women have been doing for centuries, but which somehow never appears in stories about us. So that, too, was a revolutionary moment for me.
We still have to address that little issue I broached in the beginning: The way in which Hidden Figures positions Space Race hysteria/camaraderie (whichever term you prefer) as the antidote to the social inequalities that plague its central characters. In contrast to my observations above, this is not a revolutionary argument. Indeed, it is a fairly conservative and unexamined one. The Space Race may have propelled NASA into the living rooms of everyday Americans, and catalyzed the careers of Mary, Katherine, Dorothy, and women like them during this period, but did it really help end the systemic racism and sexism that permeated every office and position in the agency, every institution in America — especially the American South, where the film takes place?
Did the fight to beat Russia to the moon create new access and opportunities for segments of the American population that had previously been blocked from enjoying them? Did the acts of one “nice” white guy astronaut like John Glenn make or break the career and achievements of women like Katherine Johnson? Any feature film, of course, will focus on the relationships between people, rather than the larger structural forces at work between them. But when the personal relationships in a film both obscure and drive its message of nationalism, effectively muddying the deeper questions of social justice it is trying to explore, we should all take another look.