Hidden Figures •••••
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe
Director: Theodore Melfi
Screenplay: Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi
Biography/Drama/History, Rated: PG
Running Time: 127 minutes
Release Date: January 6, 2017
We’re introduced to three African American women stranded on the road in 1960’s Virginia. They are “computers” – women who perform computations for NASA’s space program. Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) performs computations for the Mercury program. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) works as an engineer in the wind tunnels for the Mercury. And Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) acts as a supervisor for the other computing women, all of whom are Black.
Goble has been reassigned to work on the trajectories for the upcoming manned-flights of the Mercury program. She is dismissed by the other mathematicians because she is a woman, and a Black woman at that. Among her many challenges is the fact that the restrooms in the facility are segregated. And the only “colored” rest room for women is across the campus. She frequently has to run a half mile to use the ladies’ room – taking her work with her.
Meanwhile, Mary diagnoses a problem in the experimental space capsule’s heat shields, inspiring her to pursue an engineering degree. She convinces a judge to grant her permission to attend night classes at an all-white school. Dorothy learns that a huge new IBM computer will replace her co-workers. She sneaks into the computer room and successfully operates the machine. At the library she is scolded for visiting the whites-only section on computer programming. She teaches herself Fortran and is promoted to supervise the programming department, arranging for her women co-workers to be transferred there.
There aren’t many movies featuring women in technology, let alone women of color. Most of our images of engineers and scientists are of young men (see The Social Network). What is marvelous about this film is that it features three such women. They not only have to face gender stereotypes, but also battle racial divides.
The common trope in films dealing with race is that there is a white benefactor who lifts the African American up to where they belong. We see this in such films as The Blind Side, 42, and Race. But in Hidden Figures we’re witness to women who deal with their stereotyped roles head on and fend for themselves. It’s a refreshing change.
I was moved to tears watching Mary stand before a judge and plead her case to be allowed into an all-white community college. I know people who have had to fight for what they have earned. But they deal with a level playing field. Mary has the deck stacked against her. She not only has to change the mind of the white judge who blocks her way into school, but that of her militant husband who believes that violence is the only answer. Hidden Figures delivers three powerful examples of women overcoming prejudice on their own terms.
You’re absolutely right, Greg. Hidden Figures shows the shattering of two barriers, gender and race, in the early 1960s. I had never heard this true story of these three remarkable women, and I’m ashamed of either myself, or the system in which I was raised that suppressed this story, or both. These three heroes won my heart and earned my deepest respect. Like Jackie Robinson in 42, they knew that breaking barriers required them to take the high road when encountering inevitable prejudice and pushback. Their lives and careers were complex, difficult, way-paving and inspiring to say the least.
There may not have been any overt White helpers per se, but one cannot overlook the open-mindedness of people who assisted or supported these women’s efforts. Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) deserves kudos in his supervisory role, helping Katherine Goble adjust to her new position and even taking a sledgehammer to the “whites only” restroom sign. The judge who bends an existing exclusionary rule also helps Mary get the education she seeks. There almost have to be people in the majority race who step up to do the right thing in the service of our heroes. Having said that, I agree that this film more than most others we’ve seen emphasizes the independent nature of our heroes’ quest to break their barriers.
We see some good mentoring and leadership in Dorothy’s character. She recognizes that the world is changing and that computing machines are the next big thing. So she learns the FORTRAN computing language and teaches it to her staff. So, when the machine finally work, and the management is looking for programmers, Dorothy is ready with 30 women trained to go.
I liked Hidden Figures very much. I often look for the ‘seams’ in a movie where the structure shows through. But I was so engrossed in the story that the seams fell away. We have three different and connected hero’s journeys – and each got ample screen time. The movie is inspirational to women and people of color, but it also shines a bright light on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Women and minorities are often left behind in the STEM world, and I think Hidden Figures will inspire a new generation of engineers. I give Hidden Figures 5 out of 5 Reels.
Scott, we often look for transformation in our heroes, but sometimes the heroes transform others instead. Katherine showed that she could do a job as well as any white man. In so doing she changed the culture of NASA to be more inclusive. Dorothy broke barriers by becoming the first black woman to be a supervisor at NASA. And Mary changed the educational system to allow blacks into their community college. In each case the transformation was on society as a whole, rather than in the heroes. I give these three women 5 out of 5 Heroes.
It’s hard to find good mentors, and Hidden FIgures is no different. Each of these women had to forge onward using their own skills and intelligence. But they did it essentially alone. When you’re the first to arrive in the “special world” there often isn’t someone there to act as a mentor. We did witness some good mentoring in Dorothy and her team of ‘computers.’ So I can only muster 2 Mentor points.
All your praise directed at Hidden Figures is right on the mark, Greg. These brave, remarkable women did what society’s best heroes do, namely, set out on a journey that will bring them pain and resistance from others, defying social conventions that need defying. This movie deserves strong consideration for Best Picture in 2016. I also give it 5 Reels out of 5.
As with other way-pavers and barrier-breakers, these Hidden Figures are both transformed and transforming. We talk about heroes being both the source and the target of transformation in our latest book, Reel Heroes & Villains. These women grow in their courage and resilience, and they have no doubt (and will no doubt) inspire generations of historically oppressed individuals to reach for the stars, both literally and figuratively. I give our heroes 5 Hero points out of 5.
There is mentoring going on in this movie but as we’ve pointed out, this film emphasizes the fierce independence of these women. Yes, they got help of course, but their success derived mostly from their own innate talent and indomitable spirit. I’ll award 3 mentor points out of 5 for the subtle ways that our Hidden Figures received little nudges of help behind the scenes.