Rating: 3 Stars (out of 5)
Director: Theodore Melfi
Writer: Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons
You will like this movie if you liked: Apollo 13 or The Help
Premiered: December 25, 2016
“I would hope that the FBI would come out and say something that I think is much more significant and that is that it is amazing that so few Negroes have turned to Communism in the light of their desperate plight. I think it is one of the amazing developments of the 20th century. How loyal the Negro has remained to America in spite of his long night of oppression and discrimination.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
By the time Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the above quote to a young Dan Rather of CBS News the FBI and its leader, J. Edgar Hoover, had declared war on the Civil Rights Movement and spinning the narrative that it was filled with subversives, communists, and other anti-American adherents. While there were undoubtedly some Marxists within the civil rights umbrella, they were relatively few and once one allows the statements of King to sink in it becomes clear just how astonishing of a statement it is.
I don’t pretend to understand what the exhaustion of inhumane treatment day after day must feel like, but I feel as though I can imagine what it’s like to bear these slights in isolation. Clearly, the difficulty does not lie in using a low-quality restroom or losing time out of your day because a police officer does not think you belong in certain parts of town. The pain emanates from a constant reminder that much of the world views you as having little if any, value. And the ultimate pain comes at the point when you start to believe that.
Hidden Figures tells the story of the response of NASA to early Soviet advances in space. Much of that response was motivated by embarrassment at the launch of Sputnik and the return of Yuri Gagarin safely from space, but there was also the more practical concern of the Soviet weaponization of space. They decided to commit the agency to putting a man in space as well. Against this backdrop stands the lives of three black women: Katherine Goble, a brilliant mathematician who is asked to help with the required complex calculations; Mary Jackson, who dreams of being an engineer; and Dorothy Vaughan, who oversees a group of black women “computers.” All three women have dreams for their lives but are held back by a system that does not view them worthy.
In her assignment to help in the calculations necessary to put a man in space, Katherine faces general disbelief that a black woman could excel in mathematics in addition to the humiliation of being denied the privilege of drinking coffee from the “white” pot and needing to run across the NASA campus every time she needed to use the “colored” restroom. Mary’s quest to become an engineer not only runs up against the conventional wisdom that only white men were qualified to be engineers but the more practical need of taking specific classes that were denied to the non-white population. Dorothy does the work of a supervisor but is told that the “colored computers” do not officially have a supervisor, a position that would come with more pay.
Each of these women is able to transcend the situation they are in through their intrinsic capabilities and persistence. Their white counterparts also recognize their gifts and slowly see the error in their own ways. More than that, the story of Hidden Figures, is the story of the countless individual Americans of color throughout its’ history that made profound contributions to the success of the nation despite the fact that they were largely prohibited from sharing in the benefits of that success. In provoking a sense of empathy so that viewers can, in small ways, share in the indignities of these people the film succeeds.
That returns us to the original quote by Dr. King which raises what seems to be a much more interesting question than “What?”. That question is “Why?” Why did so many people adhere to a dream that so often seemed to abandon them? I am reminded of early plans of Abraham Lincoln that contemplated resettling freed slaves to Africa or other parts of the world, presumably because he did not think they could ever have a happy life while they swam within the prejudices inherent in the United States. Despite that, few wanted to leave. This was there country too. I think Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy would echo that sentiment. But an exploration of “Why” would certainly have made for a more interesing movie than the exploration of “What”.