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‘Hidden Figures’ (2016): The women behind the space race

<h6>Ashley Chung / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Ashley Chung / The Daily Princetonian

For any moviegoer looking for an interesting history lesson or simply an entertaining film, “Hidden Figures” is for you. Based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name, “Hidden Figures” tells the true-life stories of Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), a trio of Black female NASA scientists who played essential roles in the U.S. space program during the early 1960s.

These women begin as members of the West Area Computing Group, a group of Black female mathematicians working as human computers. As a result of the Jim Crow laws, NASA was highly segregated at the time, and employees of color worked in separate “colored” facilities.

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Desperate to make headway in the space race against the Soviet Union, NASA reassigns Johnson to Al Harrison’s (Kevin Costner) Space Task Group because of her expertise in analytic geometry. As the first Black woman on the team, Johnson faces an uphill battle as she tries to navigate her way through a workplace environment segregated based on race and gender. Johnson’s white colleagues force her to drink from segregated coffee pots, use “colored” bathrooms half a mile away, and remove her name from reports she co-authored.

Jackson and Vaughn also encounter workplace discrimination at NASA. Vaughn works as the acting head of the West Area Computing Group, undertaking the responsibilities of a supervisor. However, much to her dismay, Vaughn’s white higher-ups reject her application to be formally recognized as the supervisor. Meanwhile, Jackson is an aspiring engineer assisting Karl Zielinski’s (Olek Kupa) team in designing the space capsule’s heat shield. Despite her degrees in math and physics, she must take additional courses that are only offered at an all-white high school in order to be certified as an engineer.

“Every time we have a chance to get ahead, they move the finish line,” says Jackson, articulating the frustration felt by the three main characters and audience members alike.

“Hidden Figures” is unique in that it explores not only how the Civil Rights Movement impacted the space race but also the lives of ordinary citizens. Although Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughn are brilliant and capable individuals in their own right, they do not have to face challenges alone. Their families and communities are also willing and able to support them.

Director Theodore Melfi includes scenes of the three women interacting with their children, attending church events, and celebrating Johnson’s own wedding. These moments help to humanize the three leads beyond their professional lives, portraying them as so much more than victims of racism and reminding the viewer that the fight for equality was —  and continues to be — greater than any one person.

Aided by a witty screenplay and a strong supporting cast, Henson, Monáe, and Spencer give captivating lead performances. Whether their characters are stuck on the side of the road due to car trouble or dancing in the kitchen, their dynamic is a delight to watch  on screen. Each actress brings charm as well as emotional depth to her respective role.

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Johnson’s fiery monologue remains one of the most memorable moments in the movie. “I have to walk to Timbuktu just to relieve myself!” exclaims Johnson in front of her white male co-workers. After weeks of being dismissed and dehumanized at work, Johnson finally reaches her breaking point and delivers a passionate speech, holding her colleagues accountable for their racist behavior. The result is an incredibly powerful and satisfying scene that recognizes what it is like to be the only Black woman in a room.

Another equally resonant moment is Jackson’s court hearing where she petitions to attend graduate courses at the all-white high school. If she succeeds, she will be the first Black woman to do so. While presenting her case before the judge, she says: “I can’t change the color of my skin, so I have no choice but to be the first.”

This line rings true today, with many women of color breaking barriers to become the “first.” Recently, filmmaker Ava DuVernay has become the first Black woman to win the Best Director prize at the Sundance Film Festival; she was also the first to be nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Director and an Oscar for Best Picture. In 2018, author and activist Raquel Willis became the first transgender woman appointed executive editor of “Out” magazine. In November 2020, Kamala Harris became the first female, Black, and Asian American Vice President of the United States.

These firsts extend to Black female Princeton alumnae and faculty as well, many of whom have made notable strides over the years. During her time as an undergraduate, Crystal Nix-Hines ’80 was elected the first — and only to date — Black female Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Princetonian. In 2010, Terri Sewell ’86 (D-Ala.) became the first Black woman elected to Congress from Alabama. She was the first Black female recipient of Whig-Clio’s James Madison Award for Distinguished Public Service, which she received in December 2020. In September 2020, researcher Adji Bousso Dieng was hired to become the first Black female faculty member of Princeton’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, as well as the first Black faculty member in the University’s computer science department. Like Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughn, modern Black women continue to change the world and make history. 

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“Hidden Figures” is a biographical drama that tackles difficult themes and reveals an untold side of history often ignored by textbooks. However, it is important to remember that it is nevertheless a Hollywood film in which filmmakers have taken artistic liberties. Much of the criticism for the movie stems from Coster’s character Al Harrison, whom critics say perpetuates the white savior narrative. After learning about the discrimination occurring under his leadership, Harrison theatrically tears down the “colored only” restroom sign. At the film’s conclusion, Harrison allows Johnson into the control room to witness the rocket launch that her work helped make a reality. These are touching scenes, but they are not factual. Al Harrison is an entirely fictional character created for the film. The real-life Katherine Johnson says that she was not allowed into the Mission Control room and watched the launch from her television instead.

Though “Hidden Figures” is a film with flaws, as all movies are, what it gets right is centering its focus on the lives of Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughn. The film’s narrative underscores why a commitment to representation in media and telling Black stories matters. “Hidden Figures” places the accomplishments of Black women at the forefront of the story, right where they belong.

“Hidden Figures” is available for streaming on Amazon Prime, Disney+, and iTunes.

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