Directed by: Theodore Melfi
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, and Mahershala Ali
Hollywood acts like it faces a conundrum when it comes to films about race. On the one hand, good liberals that they are, Hollywood wants to make films that promote a social agenda of civil rights and racial respect. On the other hand, they believe that the only way to do this is to tell feel good stories about race relations where white people are often the heroes. There was the ham-fisted Crash, most undeserving Oscar winner ever, which felt a need to “redeem” Matt Dillon’s racist character by having him save a black woman from a car fire thus showing that a racist schmuck can still be a hero, I guess. I don’t know; it was terrible. There was Driving Miss Daisy, a very touching film about an old racist jewish woman and her black servants. Touching, that is, until you begin to realize that the only thing you know about the black people in the film is that they work for white people, and the film is really just about needy white people seeking acceptance from the black people they mistreat. Then of course there was The Help, the best description of which is that it is the heroic story of a white woman teaching black maids about civil rights before she steals from them.
Needless to say, I was leery of Hidden Figures. The film is based on the true story of three black women instrumental to the development of NASA’s space program. The main focus is Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) whose work in analytical geometry was instrumental to early launch and orbital trajectories, especially the flight of John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth. The film also follows Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) a pioneer in early computing as she struggles to be recognized as supervisor of the black women deemed “computers” while preparing them for the electronic computers that are about to revolutionize the country. Finally there is Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) ultimately the first female African-American aeronautical engineer, as she fights to be allowed to pursue the career her mind and talent are suited for.
The film deploys some fairly standard story arcs for civil rights films. The three women encounter a host of difficulties well known to those familiar with the era. Everything from racist librarians and police officers to the demeaning and inconvenient use of segregated bathroom facilities. Fortunately, this film manages to avoid most of the Hollywood pitfalls associated with making films about civil rights designed to attract a white audience. Most importantly, there is no white hero, except of course John Glenn, who was an actual hero, and as near as I can tell is portrayed accurately in his embrace of equality and decency. But even Kevin Costner’s character is not a civil rights hero. Like NASA, he may have acted on behalf of civil rights, but only insofar as the mission of NASA depended upon it. Succumbing to necessity should not be taken as moral praiseworthiness.
This then is the point. A part of me wants to savage the film because the “feel good” message is that all that black people need is to be better at math than computers in a way that white people deem helpful and then maybe they’ll be allowed to share a pot of coffee and a bathroom. But wait, this is a film that is based on a true story. So rather than being snarky about it, we need to recognize this actually happened. In order to get to use the same bathroom and coffee pot as other NASA employees, all Katherine Johnson needed to be was better than an IBM at math. And while we should stand in awe of the perseverance of all three women, we should also be horrified and angry that this was the case. We shouldn’t be allowed to lose the duality of the narrative. The triumph of these women is only possible because of the profound failing of our laws and people. Welcome to the United States, land of the free and home of profound contradictions.
Nor should we begin to believe that these contradictions, these successes and these failings are somewhere in our past. The most important line in the film is an exchange between Dorothy Vaughn and her supervisor (Kirsten Dunst). The white supervisor has never been overtly prejudiced, but is clearly no ally to Vaughn’s career. When the two meet in the now integrated ladies room, Dunst’s character says, “You know I have no problem with you people.” and Vaughn replies, “I know. I know you believe that.”
It’s the most important line in the film, and it underscores exactly what we need to take away. We could understand this movie as yet another feel good film about racism overcome and how awesome America is at learning to judge people by “the content of their character and not the color of their skin.” We could do that, but we’d be wrong.
Vaughn tells us that she knows we legitimately believe we don’t have issues with race, but the implication of course is that we do. This especially is directed at white America, but racism in all of its ugly permutations affects everyone. It affects how white people view people of color, but it also affects how people of color view themselves. After all, the most effective way to keep people down, is to convince them that their own faults are to blame for their predicament.
Still, in a country where we have seen two terms of a black president, it might be difficult to believe that we still have issues with race. In this case though the proof is in the title. I struggle when I teach to convince students that titles often convey the key to the entire work. They tell readers what to look for, what to take away. They need not be merely descriptive, they can be prescriptive.
Hidden Figures, tells us this is more than a story from 50 years ago, but one continuing into the present through its absence. These three women, as well as many more that made up the brigade of human “computers” doing the mathematical calculations necessary for the space agency, have been hidden from view by a history that white washes the achievements of NASA with the face of well known white men. In other words, this isn’t a wrong that was righted 50 years ago, this is a wrong that, due to our prejudices in the retelling of our history continues to the present and needs correction.
What effect does this absence have on us? It is difficult to say, but if we take stories to present the horizons of our possibility, the stories we as a culture have been telling about African-Americans have been far more limiting than the reality of their lives. As an example of this limitation, the last few black Oscar winners have portrayed, a drug dealer, an emotionally abused housewife, a slave, a maid, and a few singers. So when a movie comes along about female African-American mathematicians we are surprised, even stunned as a culture to learn that such figures exist.
But this reaction, on the part of audiences of all races, is exactly why we too have a problem with “those people” even when we think we don’t. Until we tell stories that reflect the complex diversity of the actual lives of people of color, we will continue to be surprised to learn that people of color, especially women, can be mathematicians that save NASA. And this “surprise” will be our shame.