Hidden Figures had a big opening weekend. There are no words to express how happy this makes me. The fact that this film made money has power. It means that, hopefully, we’ll get to see more stories about the nameless, faceless women of colour who made history.
As Lainey mentioned in her intro yesterday, I made it about one minute and 30 seconds into the film before the tears started. I promise, if you have a soul and a pulse, you will love this movie and you will FEEL this movie. At one point, I looked over and I swear I saw Lainey wipe away a tear. She will probably deny this. It’s hard not to be moved by such an incredible story. We knew going in that it would be a great story. The good news is that Hidden Figures is also a great film. I left the theatre inspired, in awe but also, a bit enraged. I am frustrated that it took us all this long to learn about these women. HOW did this story go untold for so long?
If you’ve been paying attention, you know that Hidden Figures is based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly and follows the story of three of the unsung heroes of NASA, members of the West Computing Group, women who were referred to as “coloured computers,” and segregated from their white peers. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Hensen), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) were integral in sending astronaut John Glenn to space to complete his 1962 orbit of Earth. The film follows these three women as they navigate their loves lives and friendships but most importantly their careers while dealing with bullsh-t bigoted coworkers and a system set up for them to fail. The film only scratches the surface of the racist roadblocks each of these women had to face on their paths to greatness. Even with the film’s slightly glossed-over look at racial tensions in the 60s, there were people sitting behind us who actively gasped out loud at every racist thing that happened. They had “coloured” bathrooms? Gasp! White people wouldn’t drink out of the same coffee pot as black people? Gasp! These three brilliant women had to put up with things that are shocking to think of today and yet, they rose. HOW did we not know them?
Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy Vaughn fights for the title of Supervisor of the West Computing Group, a job she’s already doing without the recognition. Vaughn is a woman who champions other women and uses her promotion to negotiate for the jobs of the women around her. She’s a badass. Octavia Spencer is a force in this film and she deserves all of the nominations but the two words out of all our mouths after the film were “JANELLE. MONAE.” Janelle. Freaking. Monae. She was a revelation in Moonlight and she’s even better in Hidden Figures. She delivers a lot of the comedic relief as the spunky Mary Jackson but she also nails one of the most tear-jerking scenes when Jackson stands up to a judge so she can attend an all-white school to become an engineer. Yes, Mary Jackson had to go to court to fight for her right to learn. She went on to become NASA’s first black female engineer. I’m not crying. You’re crying.
In the math nerd biopics we’re used to, like A Beautiful Mind, The Theory of Everything, and The Imitation Game, the actor who played the lead got all the love. Even though this is an ensemble film, Taraji P. Henson should not be overlooked. The Atlantic’s review of Hidden Figures marvels that the film is not a “tale of ego” like the aforementioned movies.
In Hidden Figures, Taraji’s Katherine is a meek single mother who simply doesn’t have the luxury of being an egotistical, difficult genius. When she’s called on to join a special task group attempting to get Glenn into orbit, Johnson becomes the only black woman in a room full of white men, including Kevin Costner and Jim Parsons, playing an insufferable nerd with a superiority complex. Taraji P Henson brings such a wonderful vulnerability and empathy to this woman who just put her head down and did the work. A scene where Katherine is getting berated for taking 40 minutes to go to the bathroom because “her” bathroom is on the other side of the f-cking campus is the first and really only time we see her get angry. It’s the only time she raises her voice or dares to let tears form in her eyes for her coworkers to see. In a stirring speech, she explains that she has to be twice as much, under ten times the scrutiny and tough circumstances for a fraction of the respect. It should be Henson’s awards submission scene. It’s the scene I’m still thinking about days later and my blood boils every time I do. If you are a woman of colour working in a predominately white space, you know the feeling of holding in your emotions so you won’t get labelled as “angry” or “uncooperative.” I won’t pretend I know exactly what it was like to be a black woman in the 1950s and 60s but decades later, this movie is for every black girl who has exceeded her limitations and excelled in spite of a world that makes us feel unwanted and undervalued.
In promotion for the film, NASA tweeted this:
A lot of the responses were along the lines of, “it’s racist to only highlight the black women! Why are there only black women in this post? That’s unfair!” These comments are the worst by the worst people but this film emphasizes why specifically giving black women the credit they goddamn deserve is important. Even if they have been ignored until now, these women were a part of history. They contributed to the legacy of a country that continues to give so little back to them. Especially now, the recognition of the competence and patriotism of people who look like Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson is imperative.
For every woman of colour and every woman working in STEM, we see you. We thank you. Keep up the good work.