Measuring progress with ‘Hidden Figures’
Matthew Macke | Friday, February 17, 2017
In 2015, there were zero people of color nominated for an Oscar in acting. In 2016, there were zero people of color nominated for an Oscar in acting. In 2017, there are six. Among the films that tackle the issue of race and garnered the attention of the Academy are “Moonlight,” “Fences,” “Loving,” “I Am Not Your Negro,” “O.J.: Made in America,” and “13th.” Rounding out that lineup is “Hidden Figures,” the 20th Century Fox film telling the long-forgotten story of the African-American women who played instrumental roles in making some of NASA’s most iconic missions possible. It centers on three women in particular, played by Taraji P. Henson (of “Empire” fame), Octavia Spencer and popstar Janelle Monae.
Henson is the ostensible star of the movie, serving as the primary protagonist and mathematician supreme. Her character, Katherine Johnson, is called out of the basement reserved for the black workforce and into the agency’s central operations center. There she starts out as an equation checker, albeit one that is handicapped by white, male physicists and engineers who censor their work to the point that she has almost no data to work with. After managing to catch an error by holding a folder up to the light, she is promoted to work at the computer. As would be expected of the main character, she quickly proves herself as a mathematician without equal. This rise, however, is entirely dependent upon Al Harrison, the character played by Kevin Costner.
This plot dynamic has emerged as a point of contention among some critics. Without Harrison, a white male there to promote Johnson or heroically tear down the “colored” bathroom signs, she would not have attained the success and respect that she did. Some argue that this is just a historical fact: Without the approval of the white hegemony, women like Katherine Johnson could not have hopes to succeed. Others, however, consider this representation just another subtle reaffirmation of the patriarchy. For my part, I think these plot decisions were made to protect the ego of the establishment. White people don’t like being portrayed as the bad guy, even when the label is historically accurate, as is the case in America’s long history of troubled race relations.
Fortunately, Henson’s Katherine Johnson is not the only heroic black female in “Hidden Figures.” Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan, the unofficial supervisor of the African American women at NASA. Vaughan is constantly passed over for promotion despite doing the work of someone in a managerial position. Rather than rely on the goodwill of the white people around her, she makes herself, and her girls, indispensable. Once she learns that NASA is bringing in “an IBM” that will eliminate the need for bottom-of-the-ladder computers, she immediately begins learning and teaching how to code and operate the machine. Eventually, she demonstrates that she knows the machine better than anyone and needs to be kept around. Ironically, Vaughan is soon on equal professional footing with the women who consistently advocate against Vaughan’s promotion.
Given the divergent nature of the paths these actors played in “Hidden Figures,” it should come as no surprise that Spencer is an Academy Award nominee for Best Supporting Actress, while the main actress did not receive a nomination. Henson delivered a solid performance, but is beaten out for the position of “only minority in the lead actress category” by Ruth Negga, of “Loving.” Negga plays Mildred Loving, a woman who goes from submissive housewife to empowered symbol of civil rights over the course of the film. It’s a theatrical range that none of the titular “Hidden Figures” demonstrate.
Despite the unremarkable character development, “Hidden Figures” has managed to be a popular movie. This is because the story is just so compelling. It seems ridiculous that it took until 2017 for the tales of these women to be recognized by the general public. “Hidden Figures” may be a dramatization, but it tells the stories of real women of color who did truly amazing things and deserve to be remembered. Hopefully the success of “Hidden Figures,” both publicly and critically, will encourage more studios to take a chance on this sort of movie.