Why 'Hidden Figures' Is So Alarmingly Relevant

Even though it's set in the '60s, 'Hidden Figures' represents the Black experience in present-day America.

Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson in a scene from 'Hidden Figures.'
Hopper Stone, Twentieth Century Fox via AP

“Hidden Figures,” the second feature (after “St. Vincent,” 2014) by Theodore Melfi, is a lesson in American history that’s intended for the whole family. It’s set in the most significant decade of U.S. history, in the second half of the 20th century – the 1960s. Other films that take place in that decade deal grimly with the blacks’ struggle for civil rights and equality. In contrast, “Hidden Figures,” though not omitting any part of the ugly treatment meted out to the “colored,” as they were then called, presents its true story almost as a fairy tale that inevitably leads to victory.

This perception of the movie is reinforced by the fact that, in addition to dealing with the battle for civil rights, it tells another story, which contains elements of exciting adventure, involving the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. Here, too, the events unfold in a quite elementary and basic way as a chapter in American history that began in failure but ended in success.

The picture deals tendentiously and in an easily digestible manner with this highly meaningful struggle in American history, at a time when tension between whites and blacks, far from diminishing, is surging (as the Black Lives Matter movement implies). Possibly because of this, it has become a phenomenon. It leaped into the front ranks of current American cinema quite by surprise, behind the year’s three outstanding U.S.-made movies: “La La Land,” “Manchester by the Sea” and “Moonlight.” The small-budget ($25 million) picture became a major hit, with gross revenues approaching $120 million as of last weekend. Quite an achievement, considering the subject matter and also the fact that there are no major stars in the cast (Kevin Costner isn’t in the star category anymore).

Furthermore, the movie – far more than “Moonlight,” a much better film that deals with the Black experience in present-day America – is a motion picture that represents the contemporary African-American experience, even if its plot unfolds more than half a century ago.

At the initiative of one of the movie’s stars, Octavia Spencer, who was joined by other cast members, and in cooperation with movie theaters across the United States, and with the support of the producer, 20th Century Fox, free screenings of “Hidden Figures” were arranged for those who couldn’t afford a ticket or weren’t planning to see it. This phenomenon, for which I can’t recall a precedent, is continuing to spread. On top of this, last month the film won the SAG (Screen Actors Guild) Award for outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture, triumphing over its critically acclaimed competitors. This could augur an upset at the Oscars, in which “Hidden Figures” is a Best Picture candidate.

Black women at NASA

Indeed, the phenomenon of “Hidden Figures” has become almost more interesting than the picture itself, though of course this would not have happened without its distinctive character. The story is set in 1962, as NASA prepares to send the astronaut John Glenn into space (seeking to emulate the success of the Soviet Union and its cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin). The hub of “Hidden Figures” is the part played by African-American women in NASA’s space program. The title is a play on words, referring both to numbers, which are a significant plot component, and to the fact that the three protagonists were almost unknown historical figures.

Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) supervises a group of black accountants ensconced in a small office in a remote section of NASA, without receiving the title or the salary she merits. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe, who also stars in “Moonlight”) aspires to be an engineer, but for that she has to be accepted by a white school, which by law has never admitted black students. She launches a legal battle for her right to an education (over her husband’s opposition). The lead role is that of Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), a widowed mother who’s a near-genius mathematician and is assigned to a NASA unit whose members are all white, led by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner).

Harrison is totally immersed in the NASA mission. His focus is on the fact that Katherine is a gifted mathematician, not that she’s a woman, and a black one at that. It takes time until he notices the discrimination Katherine suffers, manifested, for example, in her having to traverse a long distance to get to the bathroom for “coloreds,” or that her colleagues won’t allow her to pour water for her coffee from a whites-only container. Harrison does away with the segregation, declaring, “Here at NASA we all pee the same color.” He also has the “colored” sign removed from the kettle that was given to Katherine.

Melfi and his scriptwriter, Allison Schroeder, who worked from a nonfiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly, solve the problems presented in the movie too easily, in some cases even frivolously. Undeniably, though, there’s a certain charm in this approach, stemming in large measure from the excellent performances of the three stars. Such subtleties as the film contains derive from some of its secondary characters. A case in point is Dorothy’s white supervisor, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), who both understands and doesn’t understand Dorothy’s plight, as there were previously no black women at NASA. As a woman, she is aware of the difficulties Dorothy has beyond her skin color, but the social conventions don’t allow her to deviate from the habitual relations between whites and blacks in the American South. (The film blatantly plays up the fact that Dorothy always addresses her superior by her surname, as Mrs. Mitchell, whereas Mitchell uses Dorothy’s first name.)

The last part of the picture shifts from the distress of the three protagonists as black women at NASA, to focus on the preparations for the launch of Glenn (Glen Powell) into space. When the mission encounters problems, Harrison summons Katherine to save the situation. NASA subsequently named a building for her, and in 2015 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

Katherine’s affair with an army man, whom she marries (Mahershala Ali, who is a strong contender for the Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in “Moonlight”), draws on romantic-comedy formulas, adding another layer of popular cinema to the film. Even if the popular is sometimes translated into populism, it all heightens the film’s transformation into a phenomenon, one that is being played out just as Donald Trump is making himself at home in the White House. The result is that “Hidden Figures” acquires a potent presence, even if it would be stretching things to say it’s a great movie. Still, historically, socially and culturally it may be remembered after the year’s better films have faded into the recesses of memory.