A valuable lesson that racism is stupid
In 1950s and 1960s, NASA had employed several African American women to work as “computers,” running scores of calculations before the likes of IBM showed up to do the jobs humans were left to handle. One of these women, Katherine Johnson, tried to push through the segregation barrier with her intellect to calculate the orbital trajectories for the likes of Alan Shepard and John Glenn; one of these astronauts straight up demanded NASA to have Johnson review his flight path before taking off on his mission. Pretty impressive for a woman of color during the battle for civil rights in the 60s right? So quick question: why the fuck didn’t I hear about her contribution to the space race until 2016?
Because racism is pretty fucking stupid kids, and that’s what Hidden Figures, the biographical film about Johnson and other African American women in NASA, gets across in its two hour runtime. While I would have loved to have heard about this tale as I was growing up, as I’m sure many women and African Americans would have, their story seemed to have been lost to time; until 2016 when a biographer named Margot Lee Shetterly immortalized their stories in the nonfiction book which inspired this film. While a frustrating social case of “better late than never,” the film itself offers to plenty to talk about in the realm of acting, pacing, and impact on audiences that I want to dissect, so let’s jump in.
Taraji P. Henson is our lead actress portraying Katherine Johnson, and she does a wonderful job with the material. What I liked about her character is that she’s soft spoken normally, but hint in any way that she can’t perform complex mathematics and she’ll make you look like the dumbest rock in the Saharan Desert. You can feel the exasperation she goes through in trying to do her job but idiotic segregation requirements block her at every turn. I’m not referring to being stonewalled from important meetings discussing mission critical information (though she has to go through that too), I’m saying she has to drink coffee from a different pot from her coworkers and needing to go to the only colored bathroom on the NASA campus half a mile away while dragging her work with her on the toilet. Before you say “that shit sounds absurd,” keep in mind that the real Johnson went through that bullshit in the early part of her career. When she finally vents how fucking stupid this segregation shit was WHILE performing her demanding duties as a “computer” AND taking care of her three daughters with only her mother to help as her husband passed away…well you’re basically cheering her on at this point and cursing out NASA while you’re at it.
The head of the division where Johnson worked is played by Kevin Costner, who is on his way to redeeming himself in my eyes after his cockup in 2016. Now Costner doesn’t do as an impressive job as Henson does, but he’s serviceable in what I guess you could call the “white savior” role. He’s okay with the segregation institution until Johnson points out how idiotic it all was, and literally takes a crowbar to the system. Subtle it was not, but at least the movie didn’t revere his role in the way The Help and The Blind Side cheaply did while undermining the role of their respective African American subjects. The focus is always on Johnson and her Black co-workers’ struggle to advance their careers in racist ass Virginia (seriously Virginians, between this and Loving you’re really not having a great year in Hollywood).
Speaking of coworkers, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monaé respectively play Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson, two women who also broker barriers of their own. Vaughn was the first “official” African American supervisor over at NASA and fought hard against discrimination (personified here by Kirsten Dunst) to earn a better pay and ensure her department of Black women would continue to have gainful employment with the Federal government. Jackson’s role in history was to become NASA’s first African American engineer, which is a pretty impressive feat on its own. So why am I not talking so much about either woman despite their great accomplishments? Because the movie doesn’t give you any time to get to know them.
While both actresses are portraying real figures, this is the portion of the film where the “based” in “based on a true story” becomes more apparent as they are to serve as a B- and C-story to Katherine Johnson’s struggles when it became apparent there wasn’t that much to dramatize in her life. An odd choice given that the film is pretty long in the tooth clocking in at 2 hours and 7 minutes. Mercifully, Spencer and Monaé each give great performances filled with charisma and entertainment to distract you from how obvious the filmmakers are padding this material out.
And for such excess padding, there’s really not a whole lot of talk of the civil rights issues despite the film paying lip service in one or two places. What I mean is that you witness a rally about to get violent and it cuts off before you see anything troubling. No characters drop the n-word either, which upon reflection felt a bit…sanitized. Now I’m not asking for Tarantino-level overuse of the word, but it was a reality at the time this film takes place in so to have absent in this film feels very strange. Especially as films like Loving and Selma, took great pains to demonstrate how horrible this segregation system was and how difficult the fight for equal rights was in the first place.
Instead, our avatar for racism in NASA comes to us via Jim Parsons, who’s just doing his Sheldon shtick from The Big Bang Theory. Actually, given the actor, it was hard to tell if he was behaving like such an asshole to Henson’s Johnson (my that’s an unfortunate term of phrase) because he was a bigot or because he was a autistic shit head with no social cues. The film itself isn’t quite clear either as Parsons acts like a condescending dick to everyone save for his boss in Costner. But Parsons isn’t even that menacing as a character symbolizing workplace prejudice, nor does he serve any place to give Johnson begrudging respect or even reconciliation. He’s just kind of there…
My lukewarm attitude towards him and large parts of the cast are simply because this movie feels like a Hallmark film with a bigger budget. I mean they couldn’t afford that great of special effects for the actual space launches, so those are shot as cheaply as they could make it before relying on pretty weak computer generated images. So with the sloppy story and subpar direction, is there anything good in here?
Relax, I mentioned how much I dug Henson’s performance and she basically carries this film on her back as her character carries her mission despite all the obstacles in her path. Spencer and Monaé also turn in solid performances to keep you entertained and invested in very human characters that would have otherwise been forgotten in a Hallmark production. The script, despite my issues with the story, has some pretty smart dialogue from time to time, though I can’t vouch for the accuracy in the mathematical equations. Actually, similarly to The Martian, this is a film that does a great job in breaking down science in a way that sounds intriguing without being boring or spouting unnecessary visuals onscreen as people like to copy the style of Sherlock. And yes, the dialogue is quite funny while leaving room for some pretty decent monologues while they’re at it.
While the production is pretty committee design, the actresses and script pump this movie up to a state in which women, and especially African American women, can feel inspired by to overlook a lot of the film’s flaws. As a critic who is neither a woman nor African American, I can still appreciate just how it motivates an audience to rise above institutionalized racism and making me ponder what else could have been accomplished sooner had segregation not separated groups for so long. For those reasons, and keeping in mind my critiques, I’ll give this a solid…