Hidden Figures (dir. Theodore Melfi, 2016)

Hidden Figures deserves to win all the Academy Awards.

Movies led by women don’t sell, they said. Movies led by black women don’t sell, they said. People can’t identify with them, the said.

Wilfully ignoring that women and people of colour all around the world have spent centuries identifying and empathising with white dudes fighting with sword, guns, or fancy fountain pens.

We have seen countless movies in which the men in the NASA control room at Langley were the heroes. Just think Apollo 13 — basically, nearly three hours of dudes in increasingly dishevelled suits pacing back and forth between panels with lots of buttons on ’em and three men in a boat space shuttle trying not to crash into the moon. We’ve seen that movie, and pretty much the only female character (question: were there characters of colour in Apollo 13?) we had to “identify” with was Jim Lovell’s wife. So did women of all shapes and sizes come out of that movie feeling empty and hollow?

Fuck no. Because we, to borrow Viola Davis’ expression, know how to personalise that dummy.

In a world where James Cameron wants to make 5 more Avatar movies, one of the coolest characters on Guardians of the Galaxy is a goddamn tree with a three-word vocabulary… studio execs still wanna sell us bullshit? Still wanna tell storytellers that a movie centred around three black women can’t possibly find commercial success?

Fandom is full of racist, sexist gatekeepers. That’s a fact. So, yes, those crusty asses will be more content to empathise with Groot than with three black women who put America on the moon.

But fandom is also full of open-minded, curious people who want to look beyond their own lives, beyond their own hearts.

In Hidden Figures, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) asks Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), née Goble, to look beyond the numbers, beyond the math she sees, because the math they need to put men on the moon hasn’t even been invented yet.

In Hidden Figures, we see the control room. We see John Glenn manually overriding the capsule to land it, right on the damn spot where Katherine said he’d be. But it isn’t the men in that room who’re the heroes, they aren’t the ones the camera focuses on, they aren’t the ones whose math has to be perfect. They aren’t the ones who saved John Glenn’s life.

It’s Katherine’s math. It’s Dorothy’s (Octavia Spencer) calculations with the IBM. It’s Mary’s (Janelle Monáe) heat shield.

John, faced with the uncertainty of his Go/No Go, asks to have Katherine check the math. Says if she vouches for the numbers, he’s good to go. She deserves to be in that room, and it feels so final when that door slams in front of her. So typical. One step forward, slam the door. But it’s Harrison who calls her back in. It’s Harrison who tears the ‘colored bathroom’ sign off the damn wall with a crowbar. (And off that fucking coffee pot.)

Mrs Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) at the end finally affords Dorothy the respect of calling her Mrs Vaughan, and NASA finally gives her that promotion to supervisor. Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) accepts Katherine’s report with their shared authorship without another word and a smile, and brings her a cup of coffee. John Glenn walked over to the crowd of black women waiting for the pilots on the tarmac, greeting them when the officials were trying to hurry him along.

Pointing out these things isn’t about “not all white people,” it’s not about making us feel better; it can’t be. Neither Harrison, nor Stafford or Mitchell, nor Glenn deserve cookies for treating any of our three protagonists with the respect that should be afforded any human being. They just show that prejudice can be overcome, and that change is possible.

Taraji P. Henson should have been nominated for an Oscar. Her portrayal of Katherine G. Johnson was… impeccable. Such fine acting — everyone in this movie is brilliant, don’t get me wrong, but Taraji just… her Katherine is so full of life and light, strength, vulnerability, and grace. Her poise is admirable, her courage an inspiration; and her anger a force to be reckoned with. The scene where she returns, drenched, from her trek to the bathroom and back, having to cross the campus, and gets into Harrison’s face about his ignorance, and everyone else’s overtly racist, disdainful treatment of her… the dam breaks. The scene was perfect.

The audience feels with her, not with the white breads.

  • During the first scene, when the three are stranded on the road and the cop car pulls up, the cinema went very, very quiet.
  • When Mary got her court order to attend the advanced courses, there was joyous laughter in the air.
  • When Dorothy is made supervisor, there was vindication.

Tell us again how a movie led by three black women won’t draw an audience that will identify with them, and their struggles, and love them.

The other thing I loved was that these women weren’t just brilliant minds on legs — they had families, friendships, fully realised lives, active in their church and community, they loved and lost and found love again. The cinema I watched it at wasn’t full, but I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room during the proposal scene. Laughter at how cute the kids were, hitched into tears of joy when Katherine accepted.

There was laughter when Katherine tells Harrison to act like a boss already and make the rules, and we laughed because Taraji played it with humour and it was a funny line — and we laughed because we’re on her side. But in the end, the reason why she has to tell Harrison to step up isn’t funny. She has to do it because he doesn’t realise what she’s up against. He didn’t notice the segregated coffee pot, he didn’t think to ask about the ‘colored bathroom’ until Katherine isn’t able to work as much as she should and he gets angry at her. When he addresses all of them after Gagarin’s successful orbit, he says, “Gentlemen, call your wives.” Harrison is, by all accounts, a good man; but he’s still got a ton of internalised bullshit to unlearn. And that’s ok.

But what we must realise is: that is our reminder. Not to be complacent, not to think it’s all over now and we don’t have to do the work anymore.

Samantha Bee was right, white women have got some karma to work off, and we all have to continuously check our biases. There are things we don’t see, because we’ve been trained and socialised not to see them.

“Despite what you might think, I have nothing against y’all.”
“I know. I know you probably believe that.”

We can’t know what their experiences felt like, at least not those of us in the audience who are white and European. We can’t know their struggles, but looking different and living different lives cannot be a barrier for compassion. Watching Hidden Figures isn’t about suspension of disbelief — it’s about knowing you’re not the centre of the universe, and acknowledging the achievements and contributions of those who have been oppressed and erased from the history books.

But they will be forgotten no more.

Just this morning, it was announced that Hidden Figures has surpassed La La Land as highest-grossing Oscar contender. Good.

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