By: Imani J. Jackson
When a movie theatre packed with people of varied races, ethnicities, ages and genders erupts into simultaneous applause and cheers during a film’s closing credits, it’s safe to say the story resonated. That human happiness is exactly what manifested on Saturday when my mother, a grandmotherly elder, my younger sister and I attended a Hidden Figures showing.
Cinematically, Hidden Figures demonstrates creative power and how to sensitively wield it. Theodore Melfi directed the film and co-wrote the script with Allison Schroeder, which is based on the non-fiction book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly.
The film presents a complex and compassionate story about three African American women whose scientific and mathematical expertise ensured the United States won the Space Race when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) sent John Glenn into space and ensured his safe return. The story centers Katherine Johnson, portrayed by Taraji P. Henson, Mary Jackson, portrayed by Janelle Monáe, and Dorothy Vaughan, portrayed by Octavia Spencer.
Henson, Monáe and Spencer cleverly convey the firmness of Black women’s bonds with each other and how to lead by example in terms of interracial female solidarity. On-screen, each of the three main characters works tirelessly, and sometimes thanklessly, to tap into their own potential and further science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) knowledge.
Henson presents Johnson as a pensive, persistent and likeable genius who code-switches between NASA mathematician, prayerful mother and daughter, and a compassionate wife who ensures that her partner appreciates her beautiful mind. Johnson naturally commands respect for her intelligence at work and at home. This is quite the feat considering that during the 1960s society did not readily amplify the fact that women can be cerebral – and more mathematically accurate than computers. From an acting standpoint, Henson deployed an invaluable character resource through meeting and speaking with the real Katherine Johnson, who is 98 years old.
Monáe is spirited and funny as Jackson. Jackson’s personality is a stark contrast to the diligent and predictable Johnson. Jackson mumbles, winks, sips, flirts and dances. She also petitions the court for admittance in an all-white academic program to re-tool herself and have firmer footing for job security at NASA.
Spencer’s portrayal of Vaughan is fierce, but frustrated. Audiences see a hard-working and bravely frank woman who asserts herself to not only other Black women, but also her white and impolite supervisor Vivian Mitchell played by Kirsten Dunst. Vaughan masterfully pushes for personal and group progress and is the classic team player despite Mitchell, who functions as a reminder of race privilege and gender oppression but is the consistent cross-racial go-between. Vaughan’s pursuit of the status, pay and respect commiserate with her leadership work is a gendered message many professional women, of all backgrounds, will find familiar and inspiring.
The characters’ home lives, at times, reflect more rustic camera work. Their work at NASA, however, was filmed vividly, as if underscoring a need to propel themselves beyond segregated and would-be bleak societal circumstances.
Pharrell Williams, who is a producer of the film, also did the score. The music he created feels fresh and familiar. The blatancy and recurrence of lyrics like “Don’t act like you was there when you wasn’t” in his song “Runnin” complement a growing fire within the decreasingly hidden figures.
The film shows that if people place primacy on intellectual creation instead of making up and entrenching systems of oppression, the human species can no doubt advance both culturally and technologically. But, viewers also see open racism outside of and within NASA. Viewers see the special identity cocktail of blackness and womanhood that at times literally compromises Johnson’s ability to relieve herself and get back to work timely.
The film depicts the complexity of Black womanhood (and personhood) during a time when respectability politics was critically necessary for Black survival. Black families are normalized. Black women have love lives that flow naturally and do not feel like stereotypically performative announcements or deserved romantic absences.
As Henson wrote of the film in her memoir Around The Way Girl, “Little girls, regardless of race, need to know about and celebrate [Katherine], Dorothy and Mary for their genius.”
With STEM fields continuing to suffer gender gaps, in terms of participation and pay, a cinematic reminder that brilliant girls who are supported and trained can become professional women who build the very foundations of this country is always necessary. Further when filmmakers see that diversifying images of (s)heroes in films is just what American audiences crave, the case for less on-screen Black and Brown subjugation and unquestioned white saviors or white villains is clearly made.
‘Hidden Figures’ made $2.4 million when early released and shown in select cities and an estimated $22 million this weekend. The film deserves five stars out of five. I hope that those who haven’t seen it yet gather their people and take off to buy tickets.
Imani J. Jackson is a columnist and policy adviser with Dynamic Education Foundation. She earned a mass communication B.A., with a journalism focus and psychology minor, from Grambling State University and a J.D. from Florida A&M University College of Law. She has written for a variety of publications including the Black Youth Project, USA Today, Teen Vogue and Politic365.