History and its “Hidden Figures”

Hidden Figures is a film dealing with the accomplishments of intelligent women of color and their work with the early days of NASA during a critical era during the struggle for Civil Rights. The title itself has two meanings: one is a reference to the math necessary to successfully launch a manned satellite, the other a reference to these women working behind the scenes within a society that sought to hide their achievements because of the color of their skin. While there are a myriad of fantastic films about segregation, they have their historical context which makes it easier for viewers to say “Oh, well that’s how things were back then, our society isn’t that racist anymore.” While Hidden Figures takes place in 1961-62, it handles racism in a way that makes it relevant to our time and place. One can’t simply discount its message by saying “That was the past, when people were racist,” because no characters in Hidden Figures is actually racist—the same way nobody in today’s society is ‘actually’ racist.

The three women whom Hidden Figures focuses on are a brilliant mathematician, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson); a programming expert and supervisor, Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer); and an aspiring aerospace engineer, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae). Being women of color in the early 60s, they face countless barriers to success because of segregated society. Katherine struggles at work because the “coloreds only” resources are 40-minute trip away, nor is she able to claim credit for her work because “computers don’t write reports.” Dorothy shoulders the responsibilities of a supervisor but without the status or pay of a supervisor. Dorothy also faces the upcoming future where all the black computers she manages will lose their jobs when these new IBM machines come online. Mary struggles to get the qualifications she needs for an engineer, where the classes she needs are taught at whites-only schools.  These women are all placed at an incredibly disadvantage because of their place as black women in a racist society.

The strong women of “Hidden Figures”: Janelle Monae, Taraji P Henson, and Octavia Spencer.

Though none of the characters themselves are actually racist.

Of the white characters in the movie we have are NASA head Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and other computer managers such as Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) and Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons). They don’t hate the black women they work with, and express their appreciation for their work consistently. They do, however, deprive them of opportunities because that’s just what the rules are.  The white characters of an attitude of “Your work is great, but this is just the way society is. I don’t like it any more than you do,” and mostly lack the will to do anything about it. At one point Al Harrison decides to do away with NASA’s segregated restrooms, but it’s clear that the racist ideologies that created segregation were systemic, far beyond the work of any individual.

While all of the characters work together to launch the Friendship 7 satellite and make John Glen the first American to orbit the Earth – there are many other firsts. Katherine is not only the first woman but the first person of color to sit in on and provide guidance during a NASA briefing with the pentagon. Dorothy makes groundbreaking work in the field of computer programming, ensuring jobs for all other women of color who would have been unemployed thanks to the automation of computers. Mary becomes the first black and female aerospace engineer as a result of her determination and fight against a segregated education system that didn’t want her to succeed. History remembers John Glen as the first American to orbit the Earth—not so much the hidden figures that put him there. History remembers the huge victories made by leaders such as Martin Luther King—not so much the hidden figures that fought against a racist society in their own ways. The period of time Hidden Figures covers gives us our first ventures into space, a journey that still continues today, and America’s first steps towards achieving civil rights for a disenfranchised population, a process that still continues.

Hidden Figures

That is what makes Hidden Figures one of the most unique looks of historical racism that is still relevant to our current society. Nobody in Hidden Figures believes themselves to, individually, be racist—yet they work to maintain a system that constantly puts women and people of color at a disadvantage.  Not unlike today’s society where nobody proclaims to be racist but still, regrettably, maintain a racist system of social stratification. Many movies about racism give us one mean racist character, a villain, and the audience finds vindication when that villain gets their comeuppance. “Hooray!” the audience cries, “That one bad guy is gone so all racism is gone.” There are no easy solutions like that in Hidden Figures—the villain is a larger racist society that remains undefeated at the end of the film. While the women in Hidden Figures do achieve some great strides for their race and gender, achievements that deserve to be remembered, these are just small battles in a larger struggle. Hidden Figures reminds us that society has come a long way since the Jim Crow segregation in the early 1960’s, but we still have a long ways more to go.



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