Hidden Figures is motivational and inspirational. I feel motivated and inspired. It’s like I have the power to use any public water fountain I chose, or sit anywhere I like on the bus, or calculate Fermat’s Last Theorem with nothing but a chalkboard and a ladder. Two of those are slightly more obtainable ambitions that the other. (It’s always good to leave some room for dreaming.)
There are book smarts, there are street smarts, and then there’s Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson). Viola Davis never had to tell Katherine that she is smart, she is kind, and she is important – it’s always been a simple fact of life. For Katherine, long equations are as simple as toast, so in 1961 she happily accepts an assignment with NASA’s launch calculations department. She was a bit of a shocking choice during a time when only a handful of women (black or white) worked at NASA and even fewer of them signed their names on things. On her first day, she is marched across campus, told to wear skirts below the knee and heals every day, and thrown into a room lined with white men in white shirts at white desks. She is a duck among the ostriches. The single mother of three B-lines it to her desk, pulls out her coffee mug, and hunches over the stack of redacted papers tossed in front of her. Calculating NASA’s launch and landing codes in 1961, when America is desperate to beat the Russians to a little space in space, with a director who works so fast his orders are obsolete ten minutes later, and with seven heroic astronauts counting on you to bring them home alive, this would be a tough job for anyone. But consider doing it during a time when your colleagues write “coloured” on a dinky coffee pot because they don’t want your black hands near the staff brewer.
Thankfully, Katherine is not alone. She has the sassy support of Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), a mathematician, like herself, who’s fighting every angle to apply for a NASA engineer position – and not be laughed at in the process. Chin up, Mary. We also have Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), the acting supervisor of the West Area Computers (the black women’s division) who hasn’t been properly paid as a supervisor in a year. Regardless, Dorothy deeply cares for the girls in her division, and is willing to go the extra mile, read the extra books, pass on her knowledge, and break into the IBM lab to study the computers that are bound to replace her team. All this is in preparation for that inevitable day, and gosh darn it if Dorothy won’t do everything she can to make her staff indispensable.
When I say Hidden Figures is motivational and inspirational, now you can see why. There are so many perfect moments of, “Get it, girl!” that I actually first pumped in the theater. (No one was hurt.) How did we not know about this trio of brilliant women who shot Captain America/John Glenn into space? What the hell, The Right Stuff? You had a cast peppered with just seven women, most of whom were wives. And come on, Apollo 13. You were made in 1995 and have no excuse for this oversight. Of course, when you think about it, Hidden Figures champions a group of revolutionary women known literally as Computers; when was the last time you saw a movie that concluded with, “And special thanks to my Acer”? In 1961 it was normal to underestimate people of colour and women – and here we have a film with both… in a “man’s job”. Stepping apart from the crowd, we should also recognise the few men in Hidden Figures who have cracked the secret of what women want: for men to make an obvious effort. The most blatant example is Director Harrison (Kevin Costner). He may be fictional, but at least he fictionally does the right thing (eventually) and treats Katherine like a respectable human being.
Hidden Figures does an astounding job of putting the struggle in context. From day-to-day issues such as needing the bathroom (when the coloured washroom is across campus), to the more disheartening realisation that the job you want requires courses only offered at the white high school. Let’s take a moment and think about that. Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary are cultural heroes and it’s about time they get to star in their own movie.
Next to the obviously powerful message that brains are brains no matter what colour pantyhose they stand in, Hidden Figures is a beautifully shot film that blends authentic 1961 footage with impeccable sets and wardrobe. I felt like I was there. Cardigans, Spanx, and Chevi Bel Air convertibles, plus historical recordings of NASA broadcasts and speeches by JFK, Hidden Figures is a blast back to the hot, tanning oil and short-shorts beaches of Florida. The space race is exciting enough even without the levels of inequality that exist underneath. But it becomes all the more important that we see both the shiny white shoes and the second-class lunch room. Hidden Figures is a bright movie full of strong, empowering characters, and will leave you with a mighty urge to march for something. This isn’t a movie to miss. It’s as enjoyable as it is eye-opening, and I’d say a strong 9.5/10.