By: Valerie Complex
Few accomplishments in American history have been as celebrated as the nation’s space program. There remains the unsung and unlikely heroes of the space race, particularly, the team of female geniuses which are the driving force of the film Hidden Figures. Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan, the ‘hidden figures’ of NASA, blazed many trails toward greater diversity in science and equality in America. Their true-to-life accomplishments contributed to our society and our world.
As a child Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is a young girl who loves numbers and mathematics. Being a human computer is her calling, as she grows up to work for NASA in Virginia in the 1960s. She is self-aware, confident in her abilities, and unwavering in her worth ethic. Little does she know that director of the space program Al Morrison (Kevin Costner) would take notice of her talents. Katherine’s knowledge is utilized in planning a numerical trajectory to help Astronaut John Glenn circle the Earth’s orbit. However, she isn’t in this fight alone. She has two confidants who she relies on for support while working at NASA.
Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) is the sassy young engineer who believes in speaking her mind and getting the job done. She is unafraid to challenge the system to achieve higher learning. There is a bit more she has to learn before moving to the next level, but there is a problem. The training she needs is taught at a ‘whites only’ school. Mary builds up the courage to take on Virginia legislature to attend night classes. A first for Hampton Roads.
Then there is Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), the patient mentor to these ladies. She has made herself indispensable by learning the ins and outs of the IBM programming math machine at NASA. She is the reason the machine is in working order and continues to function. Through her knowledge, she can train others and supervise, which was unheard of at that time.
What is so great about Hidden Figures is that it’s devoid of tropes. Specifically for the lead actresses. It is easy for Black women to fall into ugly tropes in cinema like prostitutes, drug addicts, maids, slaves, and so on. There is nothing wrong with that, but we are so much more, and the film understands this. These women are smart, independent, and for the first time, white America is dependent upon them for answers and for ‘saving’ –not the other way around.
Speaking of performances, all three actresses bring a unique dynamic to the film. For Taraji people have correlated her performance on the television show Empire to be the staple of her career, but many forget she is an Oscar nominee with a versatile career. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Person of Interest, Hustle and Flow, I Can Do Bad All By Myself. Taraji has done it all. She deserves more credit than audiences give her. She’s such a fantastic, charismatic individual on and off screen.
Octavia Spencer is an Oscar winner who has made a choice to diversify her career post-Oscar win. And this was just to get out of her own shadow. While her Oscar win for The Help, launched her career, she received a slew of roles that offered no variety. She took charge of her career and is now back in the Oscar race for her performance in Hidden Figures. To take charge of ones career takes gusto, as it’s a known fact that Hollywood is less kind to actresses of color.
Janelle Monae has established an illustrious career as a singer/performer and is now having a go at acting. So far she has exceeded expectations with her performance in Moonlight and Hidden Figures. I am excited for what she has in store for fans in the future.
Hidden Figures is a well-made piece of cinema. Director Theodore Melfi combines several cinematic elements to make this a complete film-going experience. This movie is as much about science-faction, as it is a tense racial drama and a lighthearted comedy. It’s an educational film that should be mandatory viewing for the whole family.
Everyone in America should know about these brilliant women. They didn’t ask for recognition but deserve to be acknowledged because their knowledge mattered and changed the world. They were hungry for a chance to prove they were just as smart as their white peers. Hidden Figures teaches us that women of color help to orchestrate America’s launch into space and beyond. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson are not only local heroes in the Hampton Roads area but are National Heroes and Patriots. It’s unfortunate that it has taken the country this long to publicly recognize the trio, but better late than never I suppose.
Valerie Complex is a freelance writer and professional nerd. As a lover of Japanese animation, and all things film, she is passionate about diversity across all entertainment mediums.