Movie review: Hidden Figures
The award-winning movie, based on a nonfiction novel, is empowering and informative, but improvements can be made.
February 3, 2017
Filed under Arts
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Did you know that Black female mathematicians were instrumental in working for NASA and sending the first American to orbit space? Well, now you know. Hidden Figures, currently in theaters everywhere, sheds light onto the hidden history of significant figures in calculating space trajectories for NASA’s historic launch. Based on the nonfiction novel of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, the film follows mathematician Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and supervisor Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) as they engage in the space race against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
What’s interesting is that the movie is now playing alongside another film, Fences, which also explores the issue of race, specifically Anti-Black discrimination in employment. Fences, which is based on the late August Wilson’s play, centers around Troy Maxton, played by Denzel Washington, a father who had an early career as a baseball player in the Negro Leagues but was prevented from playing in Major League Baseball as a result of racism. Similarly, Hidden Figures delves into the issue of the lack of Black women in the upper ranks of NASA, often showing Katherine Johnson as the only Black woman in a sea of white male colleagues. Both movies are set in the 1950s, a time where racism in America was rampant – although racism has never ended in the U.S.
Indeed, Hidden Figures provides a realistic portrayal of the racism that Black Americans faced at the time. Black female mathematicians, referred to as ‘human computers,’ were assigned to work on their calculations in a separate facility called the West Area Computers. When Katherine Johnson is promoted to work in the all-white and male dominated Space Task Group, she had to make half-mile trips to the colored restroom in another building. One of the best scenes in the film is when the Katherine’s boss, the task group’s director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), demands to know where she has been after she trekked to the segregated restroom, and she unleashes her frustration about the situation to him.
However, the scene then takes a very unrealistic turn when the white male director takes it upon himself to desegregate the restrooms, using a crowbar to knock down the colored restroom sign with a dramatic score playing in the background. He then exclaims: “No more colored restrooms. No more white restrooms. Here at NASA, we all pee the same color.”
“In a Jim Crow era, is this type of white heroism realistic?” I wondered. More importantly, since the film was based on a nonfiction novel of interviews with Black women who worked at the Langley Research Center, did it really happen? Of course not. In an interview with the real Katherine Johnson conducted by Vice News, she confirms that this scene did not unfold in reality – She refused to use the colored restrooms and went in the white restrooms instead.
When Vice asked the film’s director, Theodore Melfi, of his thoughts on the matter, he replied: “There needs to be white people who do the right thing, there needs to be black people who do the right thing. And someone does the right thing. And so who cares who does the right thing, as long as the right thing is achieved?”
However, it does matter who “does the right thing.” From the civil rights movement of the 1960s to the present day Black Lives Matter movement, it is shown that liberation is never simply given, but fought for, by Black folks. To whitewash this history is to do a great disservice to the Black communities that struggled for justice and to audience members who see a hero in a white man who would have never been a hero.
Despite the issue of inserting white savior themes in a film meant to uplift Black women and girls, the positive impact the movie has had on them is undeniable. Representation matters, and the fact that this movie is centered on the true story of three remarkable Black women makes it all the better. Perhaps in the future, the film can be remade into a more realistic account, consulting the real voices of Black women pioneers such as Katherine Johnson herself and being written and directed by Black women such as Ava DuVernay.