Hidden Figures (2016) is a bibliographical drama that gives us a window into the lives of three black women working for NASA in the Jim Crow South during the height of Cold War paranoia. The script of Hidden Figures was written by Allison Schroeder, based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. By achieving both commercial success and critical acclaim, Hidden Figures serves as another example that the lack of diversity in Hollywood is more grounded in racism and patriarchy than the bottom line, and that movies starring Black women interest more than just a niche market.
We are introduced to Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan when their car breaks down on a Virginia highway on the way to work. A suspicious police officer quickly arrives on scene, who, upon learning the women are NASA employees late to jobs integral to the “space race,” is forced to choose between his racism and his nationalism. In the end, his nationalism wins, and he gives the ladies a police escort to work so they are not late.
The stars of Hidden Figures deliver a thought-provoking performance depicting both racism and sexism in the workplace, as well as sexism in their homes and communities.
Even though these ladies held jobs at one of the most prestigious workplaces in the United States, segregation, ignorance, bigotry, and constant microaggressions in every aspect of life were the norm, and constant reminders of their status as second class citizens were inescapable.
The comradery and friendship shared by these three women is contrasted against the palpable animosity they experienced from coworkers, and this film doesn’t shy away from the fact that some of the worst racism came from white women. Despite their co-workers knowing all too well the sexism and sexual harassment commonplace to women working in 1960s America, this film does not make the mistake of pretending powerful white men were the only perpetrators of prejudice.
Hidden Figures also illustrates the beginning of an important transition for women in the workplace.
Before the development of computers that could perform these complex calculations, scores of “human computers” were required. This area of work was seen as tedious and boring and was not viewed with the prestige (or given the pay) computer programmers enjoy today. Women of color were able to work as human computers because it was seen as appropriate “women’s work,” akin to stenographers and secretaries.
As technology advanced, and home computers were marketed as a hobby for young boys, an industry built on and by women was transformed as well. While compensation and status drops when women and people of color enter and begin to dominate a field, the opposite is also true: When white men start to dominate a field, pay and prestige go up.
I was pleasantly surprised that Hidden Figures didn’t simplify “progress” as merely working within the system and being quiet. Every inch of respect and acknowledgment these women received they had to fight for; it wasn’t handed to them by white people in power after they showed their worth.
Whether it was petitioning the court to for permission to register for classes suddenly “required” when a black engineer seeks to advance, stealing a book from the “white” section of the library when the “colored” section does not carry it, or changing the minds of those closest to you, these women show that progress only follows struggle.
The film ends on a deceptively high note: Despite what Hidden Figures seems to be implying, NASA was still segregated after Alan Sheppard orbited the earth.
However, I took Hidden Figures to be a drama illustrating this period in time and the experiences of these three women rather than a documentary on the desegregation of NASA, and it succeeds at showing a deeply personal side to the segregated South, as well as racism in America.
I would recommend this movie to anyone who has an interest in these subjects, especially to those of us who most benefit from the women and people of color who were pioneers in their fields, allowing women like me to proudly don a lab coat every day — and for those of us who are still fighting on one or several fronts of this battle every day.