Entertaining Impossible: Hidden Figures

Janelle Monáe, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures

In 1961, putting a man on the moon was more conceivable than voting a black man into the White House.  To defy gravity, a matter of science, to defy segregation, a crime.

Hidden Figures is a dramatic re-enactment that skilfully explores two historical movements side-by-side: the Space Race and the Civil Rights Movement. The first, the embodiment of an all-American enthusiasm for progress, the second, the struggle of African Americans to be treated as equal citizens. Directed by Theodore Melfi, Hidden Figures splices these phenomena together by dramatizing the real life achievements of three extraordinary NASA employees, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine G. Johnson, who, at the age of 98, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.

“I don’t entertain the impossible,” says Jackson, played with verve by Janelle Monáe. Yet this movie is all about proving the impossible possible. Jackson fights to become the first black woman to be an aeronautical engineer while Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) chases indispensability as a permanent supervisor. The primary story follows Johnson, as she is assigned to The Space Task Group, a cohort of boffins responsible for safely sending an American into space before the Russians beat them to it.

Initially, Johnson is utilized as a human calculator, a safety net to prevent mathematical error.  However, her savant skills ensure an upward trajectory despite the barriers associated with her gender and race. Taraji P. Henson’s performance as Johnson is one of restrained power, assured in the face of disparagement, ferocious when pushed by injustice.

Racism colours nearly every scene of Hidden Figures,  yet its discomforting hue comes not from the white cloak of the Ku Klux Klan, but the starch white collar of the threatened co-worker. Dispiriting, anonymous gestures remind Johnson that she strays above her station. A ‘colored people’ coffee pot is installed on her arrival, lest she consider herself an equal member of the team. Johnson’s primary antagonist, head engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Norton), is a jealous, humourless man who obstructs Johnson at every turn. And yet the character is somehow more likeable than Norton’s recurring geek character, Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory. Possibly because, for all Stafford’s faults, he’s not so much of a know-it-all that he can afford to overlook Johnson’s talents.

Throughout this slice of the Sixties, discrimination is presented as natural fallacy; it is therefore it should be: that water fountain is assigned for white people, therefore black people should use their own. “I just follow the rules,” is a response Johnson, Jackson and Vaughan all hear in one guise or another, a putdown smuggled in a shrug and an empty smile. Such civil civil oppression is pervasive and hard to resist. Manners maketh a man blameless.

All three characters are distinguished by their consummate talents and irrepressible drive, without which, their fight against the status quo would have surely been scuttled. Seemingly benevolent Task Group boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) only asks Johnson’s name when he suspects she could be a spy, weeks after distinguishing herself as an excellent mathematician. The “good guys” care about Johnson so long as she’s a) a genius b) of use to the project.

Taraji P. Henson summing it on screen as Katherine G. Johnson

Thanks to the NASA setting, there’s a fair bit of math-science-space babble delivered by the cast with absolute conviction. Plus, there’s the dialogue aimed at any algebra averse laymen in the audience, which is apparently more understandable: “Look beyond the numbers, look around the numbers,” as if gravity-busting formulae is merely well camouflaged. Ever since A Beautiful Mind, the one way to spot an on-screen genius is by the flagrant misuse of surfaces in the name of mathematics. No window or tree is safe from the  invasive etchings of a Hollywood prodigy. Fortunately, Johnson isn’t genius by numbers. She’s a protagonist near impossible not to root for.

When watching Hidden Figures, one rarely doubts the future successes of Johnson, Jackson and Vaughan; their triumphant arcs barely waver. Perhaps that’s the nature of a Hollywood biopic in this vein. The movie has been made with the intention of inspiring and informing, and on those counts it surely excels. But what of the black women living in this era without the talents of Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughan? Or, the black women so downtrodden by racism and sexism that their autonomy was shattered? These women are not hidden figures, because evidence of their achievements is not there to find. They were robbed of opportunity. This previously more common and depressing fate does not feature in Hidden Figures, and the film is weaker for it. As a celebratory film, it lacks the drama that the threat of failure brings, a threat which surely existed for all three women during the ’60s despite their talents.

History is set. By virtue of it happening one way and not another, it gives the impression of inevitability. Former President Obama has repeated a quote belonging to Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” This illusion—that history takes the side of the righteous— engenders complacency: the future is up for grabs and must be fought for. As a model to aspire to, Hidden Figures is ideal. As a sign of the fight to come in the Trump era and its uncertain outcome, Hidden Figures obscures the dangers of possible defeat.

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