Hidden Figures is a blockbuster historical drama based on the remarkable true story of three Black women who, in the face of formidable obstacles, contribute their individual and collective genius to the United States’ race to space in the early 1960s—a time when such efforts were dominated by the USSR, and widespread Cold War hysteria coincided with the domestic tensions arising from an escalating Civil Rights Movement. While Hidden Figures is, by all conventional measures, a beautiful piece of filmmaking, this picture is no ordinary Hollywood underdog story. In what is still considered a rare departure from the abundance of white, male-driven narratives (especially when it comes to STEM-based stories) glorifying the ultimate triumph of the individual, Hidden Figures revolves around the rich experiences of three Black women who understand, defend, and cultivate their irrefutable personal value while supporting and celebrating one another, despite the outright and subconscious hatred, disrespect, and condescension of their white peers, and the limitations of a society that not only discriminates along racial lines, but gender lines as well.
Prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Jim Crow laws prevailed throughout much of the South, including NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, where the film takes place. Bathrooms were designated “colored” and “white,” and this brutal fact of life forces the main character, Katherine Goble/Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), a gifted physicist and mathematician, to run over half a mile each way to relieve herself during the work day. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), another bright and fearless mathematician, encounters resistance from home, NASA, and Jim Crow in her unprecedented quest to become an engineer. And Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer in an Academy Award nominated performance for Best Supporting Actress) takes serious risks in order to teach herself Fortran—the programming language for the room-sized IBM that threatens to render her job, along with her entire department of Black female “computers,” obsolete. With their struggles and successes intertwined, all three women make themselves indispensable at a historical moment where large swaths of society viewed their lives as disposable.
With low pay and practically no room for advancement, these brilliant, professional women—who also happen to be wonderful, devoted mothers and wives—were singularly dedicated to NASA’s mission, despite the fact that the United States was not similarly dedicated to them. The terse supervisor of the group responsible for launching John Glenn into space, Al Harrison (played beautifully by Kevin Costner), is one individual who recognizes and utilizes their talent, much to the chagrin of the other white, male engineers who shrink and sneer. Driven solely by a mission to re-establish America’s prominence in space, Mr. Harrison looks past the color (and gender) of the genius who helps his team succeed.
While Mr. Harrison realizes that genius is, in fact, colorblind, the three heroines know that, as women of color, genius alone will not guarantee their success; rather, genius must be combined with perseverance, cunning, perfectly timed and executed moxie, and a strong support network of family, friends, and lovers. As they calculate launching and landing coordinates and supply some much needed innovation and initiative to the space race, these women chart their own groundbreaking career trajectories that rival the historical significance of the rockets they help launch.
Despite more than half a century of separation between the depicted events and the film’s release, there is an unsettling timeliness to Hidden Figures’ portrait of Cold War era oppression, inequality, division, and fear. In leading us towards a powerful reckoning with the past, the present, and within ourselves, Hidden Figures presents a meditation on the limitless potential of equal opportunity; we are collectively stronger, smarter, kinder, and more innovative when everyone is empowered to maximize his or her talents, passions, and spirit—when everyone has the opportunity to actualize his or her better self.
Indeed, in addition to being exceptional in terms of its amazing female leads and beautiful Black love story, Hidden Figures is also distinguished by a moving inspirational quality that transcends the limits of representation. Free screenings of Hidden Figures, many of which have been arranged specifically for girls and underprivileged youth, have become an international phenomenon. The film raked in record ticket sales for female-driven pictures upon its release, and recently crossed the $100 million mark at the domestic box-office. To top off its numerous accolades from this year’s award season, Hidden Figures is now a favorite contender for the Academy Award for Best Picture. More than ever, this box office feat—combined with widespread popular and critical acclaim—provides much-needed proof that there are many good people in the United States who will pay money to see a film that honors the integrity and contributions of women, and Black women in particular. Wonderful art is limitless.
Beyond Law highly recommends that you go see Hidden Figures. Bring your children.