For all of the advancements that the world has made in regards to civil rights, recent events continue to place the subject of discrimination and the senselessness of judging people based on something as insignificant as their gender or the color of their skin into the limelight.
Arriving in a politically-charged climate, particularly in the United States in the wake of the election of Donald Trump and the continued social issues surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, Hidden Figures tells the true-life tale of Katherine Goble (Tajari P. Henson) and the struggle she and other African Americans faced in the 1950s and 60s to achieve acceptance and equality, even when presenting a level of genius that should shatter all preconceptions.
Adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s novel of the same name, the film follows Goble and her “girls”, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), as they work in Langley Research Center’s segregated West Area Computers Division.
Set at the height of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, the latter’s successful launch of a satellite leads to pressure building for an American to be sent into space. It is in this climate that Goble is asked to assist the leading mathematicians at the center by her supervisor, where she experiences further discrimination as her colleagues dismiss the possibility that she or her colleagues would be able to contribute anything of worth to the project.
Over the course of the film, the trio shatters expectations and, by extension, the glass ceiling placed above African Americans at the time. Each has a shining moment of truth that highlights what they are capable of contributing when given the chance. Mary’s comes from identifying a flaw in the design of a heat capsule, while Katherine’s takes full advantage of an opportunity to demonstrate her mathematical abilities by solving a complex equation in front of the watching eyes of the peers who had so easily dismissed her.
However, it is Dorothy’s moment that perhaps stands out as the most reflective of the difficulties the women, and others of color, faced during the era. Presented with the possibility that a new computer could make her role obsolete, she tries to learn FORTRAN, the programming language behind the computer, only to find that the book that she needs is in the “whites only” section of the library.
Essentially stealing the book in response, Dorothy is then confronted with the legal dilemma of taking a book from the library out of the “wrong” section, in addition to a personal moral dilemma that is reinforced by her own daughter’s shock at her decision to take the book. Her exclamation that she pays her taxes just like everybody else for the library and should be entitled to the same rights as white visitors is particularly effective in showing the true gulf that existed between races at the time, emphasized even further by the ease in which she develops her skills in the language.
It is also worth shining a spotlight on Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), who stands as one of the very few characters in the film who actually treats the women fairly, with his gruff nature belying an ability to accept people for who they are and what they can bring to the table. It is he who abolishes the segregated bathrooms at the center and Costner’s performance is nuanced without overshadowing the three women who are the focus of the story.
Even the romantic subplot between Katherine and Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), a United States Army Officer, is underpinned with this theme of triumphing over discrimination through ingenuity and sheer talent. Johnson’s initial dismissal of Katherine’s obvious mathematical talents is made even more glaring when the depth of those talents is finally revealed, with the two eventually overcoming their differences and getting married.
Even so, the women continue to hit roadblocks even as the film reaches its triumphant conclusion, with the ending, in particular, demonstrating that even after her talents had been recognized and put on full display by her peers, Katherine still needed to battle through to offer her last contribution to the mission.
A timely release that reminds us that with the courage of our convictions it is possible to overcome adversity of all kinds, Hidden Figures serves as an inspiring historical piece while still feeling completely relevant today. The issues confronted in the film may not be as directly pronounced or obviously visible in the modern era as they were in the 1960s, but they most certainly still exist and Hidden Figures is the perfect counterargument for why they shouldn’t.