Don’t you know that we’re able? Pharrell Williams sings in the soundtrack of Hidden Figures, based on the true story of the black women who worked at NASA leading up to John Glenn’s historic 1962 launch into orbit. Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan all want to see their country win the space race as much as any other American, and they are prepared to use their skills to do it, no matter what roadblocks are put in their way.
Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) is a genius mathematician, allowed to work with the core group of engineers and scientists leading the mission. Mary (Janelle Monáe) is working to become the first female engineer, and is attempting to cross the color barrier at a white university to do so. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is empowering fellow black female computers (mathematicians), while trying to achieve the title of supervisor that she deserves.
Don’t you know that we’re able? Yes, but how long will it take for that to translate into respect? For these women, it looks further away than landing on the moon.
Hidden Figures is a woven tapestry of the experiences of these women, from their work, to their personal lives, to their cultural and social experiences at the height of the Civil Rights movement, demonstrating the balance these women had to achieve, and presenting the challenges they faced, without ever making it seem so hopeless that it wasn’t worth it. The realness of the main women (powered even further by the strong performances from all the main actresses), from their mannerisms, to their relationships, and their simple desire to do good work, is striking. Watching multiple scenes with three women- women of color no less- laughing with each other, going to church together, raising their children and going to work side by side is something I have rarely seen in movies, or entertainment in general. It reminds me that the normalities of my life are the same ones the women who have and will shape the world have.
With the recent explosion of experimental and powerfully subtle biographies and historical dramas (Selma, Lincoln, Jackie, The Theory of Everything, Suffragette, The Imitation Game, etc) Hidden Figure’s on-the-nose-iness and guileless inspiration sometimes is jarringly amateurish. Moments like Mary Jackson telling a judge, “Sometimes you just have to be the first. I want to be the first so others can come after me,” make the film seem more like a TV movie- one that has a message and is afraid you might not understand it unless it says it out loud.
But then there are moments that encapsulate abundances of truth that shock you by their authenticity. Kirsten Dunst’s Mrs. Michaels telling Dorothy Vaughn, “Despite what you might think, I really don’t have anything against you people,” and Dorothy responding with, “I know. I know you believe you don’t.” Moments like Katherine walking into a white man’s room and the quiet that settles over it, as people look at each other, trying to navigate their social norms into this seemingly earth-shattering moment. Moments like a police officer pulling up to the three women when their car is broken down, and they immediately start having to question their own innocence, and then having to prove it.
These moments prove that Hidden Figures isn’t ashamed of being a heartwarming, honest, earnest, and truly inspirational film. It isn’t here for bravo or self-congratulations. It isn’t here to woo the critics (not to say it isn’t award-worthy, it just isn’t showy). It is audience friendly because it’s here to speak to the Black girl sitting in the theater; the White, Latina, Indian, Native American, Asian, any girl, sitting in the theater. It’s here to reach the boys and the men and the women and everyone who has ever felt unappreciated, or who has ever been discouraged from pursuing his or her talents and dreams. It is for the people who love America and want to make it better, and aren’t afraid to examine its past for the good and the bad.
That is what makes Hidden Figures a fantastic movie. It restores history to a disenfranchised group, confronts the reasons why that group has been disenfranchised, and sets the story straight. It does that all while being incredibly timely to now, without sacrificing its warmth, humor, toe-tapping soundtrack, and flawless performances.
Hidden Figures is for everyone, and celebrates the achievements of everyone who has worked hard and fought for what was right. That’s an achievement, and if the movie tells us anything, it should be recognized as such.