After winning the SAG award for Best Ensemble Cast, topping the box office at a current count of over $100 million, and earning an Oscar nomination for best Picture, Hidden Figures is easily one of the bestselling and most critically received films of the year. Based on the book written by Margot Lee Shirely and adapted to the screen by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, Hidden Figures illuminates the work of African-American women who helped launch the American space age into being.
Our first introduction to Katherine Goebbels (later Katherine Johnson) is as a young girl. Recognizing her intellect, Katherine’s teachers tell her parents that she is ready to jump ahead to the high school level. The catch is that the only school she can attend for African Americans is a far distance away, but her teachers are so invested in her progress they have put together a fund to help Katherine get to school. This moment only last a few minutes on the screen but it sets the theme for the rest of the film; it represents the success of the individual as a byproduct of the support and unity of the community.
Fast forward years later, Katherine is an adult and already working for NASA alongside Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson, two remarkable women in their own right. After some car trouble, all three arrive at headquarters where they work as computers crunching the numbers for the space program. Katherine is assigned to the team preparing the math for astronaut John Glenn’s first orbital launch. Any other biopic would limit its focus on just Katherine’s struggle, and there are many: from being suspected of being a spy to fighting her way into the meetings about her own launch numbers, but Hidden Figures takes the extra effort to follow Dorothy’s struggle to gain the position of Supervisor that she deserves and Mary’s path to become the first African American and woman engineer.
In a standard biopic, each woman could arguably have their own film at the exclusion of the others, but instead Hidden Figures presents their stories together because they all face the same overt racism from different fronts. The film resists showing the space age as just the act of a few exceptional women. When IBM’s technologies threaten to make the computers obsolete, rather than just save her own job, Dorothy teaches herself how to program the machines and then trains all the other computers in the colored women’s division the same skill. Just as Katherine’s teachers and her parents pulled together to ensure that she had access to the best education possible, the computers pull together to make sure that each member succeeds even if some like Mary, Katherine, and Dorothy happen to excel farther. Success is not something achieved alone but through the progress and support of the collective.
Hidden Figures is worth watching because it gives a different perspective on the space race through the lens of race, gender, and challenges the biopic genre by presenting the group versus the individual. The performance of the three key actresses grounds the film and provides its strength. From Taraji P.Henson’s pure power during her climactic speech, Janelle Monáe’s gravitas in the courtroom, to Octavia Butler’s control and subtly in the bathroom scene, each actress proves she is more than deserving of her critical acclaim. If you can see this film in theaters, do so today.
By Jessica Flores