Hidden Figures: A Highly Entertaining Film that Means Well but Doesn’t Quite Add Up

By Sabrina Völz

pho­to cred­it: Release poster / Wikipedia

As many of you might know, Hid­den Fig­ures (2016) is a biopic direct­ed by Theodore Melfi based on Mar­got Lee Shetterly’s pop­u­lar his­to­ry book and New York Times Best­seller, Hid­den Fig­ures: The Amer­i­can Dream and the Untold Sto­ry of the Black Women Math­e­mati­cians Who Helped Win the Space Race (2016). The film about the NASA’s black female com­put­ing group at Langley’s Research Cen­ter dur­ing the Space Race was nom­i­nat­ed for three Oscars and has reaped high praise from movie crit­ics the world over. I was among the droves of peo­ple who rushed to the the­ater to see the movie when I read that Hid­den Fig­ures is an inspi­ra­tional film that makes lit­tle known achieve­ments of intel­li­gent, deter­mined women vis­i­ble. I also appre­ci­at­ed the fact that this ‘feel good’ Christ­mas film might encour­age girls to seek Sci­ence, Tech­nol­o­gy, Engi­neer­ing, and Math (STEM) careers. The plot also avoid­ed all too famil­iar themes in black films, such as bru­tal beat­ings and rape of black women, which were tak­en to an extreme in Pre­cious and 12 Year’s a Slave. It seemed like a win-win sit­u­a­tion for all and the per­fect sto­ry of tri­umph in dark times. And to be hon­est, that is exact­ly how I expe­ri­enced the film. Well, at first. Then I read the book.

Before I get to my crit­i­cism of the film, I want to make it clear that I still val­ue the motion pic­ture Hid­den Fig­ures and find the cast and espe­cial­ly the act­ing tal­ents of Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, and Tara­ji P. Hen­son in the respec­tive roles of Dorothy Vaugh­an, Mary Jack­son, and Kather­ine John­son remark­able. The film brings both impor­tant and less­er-depict­ed themes, e.g. the rap­port and friend­ship between black women, to the big screen. While Hid­den Fig­ures remains a good film over­all, it miss­es the mark in a few impor­tant areas.

After read­ing the book on which the film was based, I was dis­ap­point­ed that the motion pic­ture avoid­ed a seri­ous dis­cus­sion on struc­tur­al dis­crim­i­na­tion. Kather­ine John­son was the only char­ac­ter to be shown pri­or to her work at NASA as a black female math­e­mati­cian, and the shot cho­sen reflect­ed her love and tal­ent for math­e­mat­ics as a child. Noth­ing wrong with that, but by only con­cen­trat­ing on this one flash­back, the film miss­es an oppor­tu­ni­ty to put the accom­plish­ments of the oth­er char­ac­ters and the chal­lenges they faced into a larg­er context.

Before work­ing at Lan­g­ley, all three of the actu­al black cal­cu­la­tors were so poor­ly paid as teach­ers that they need­ed to sup­ple­ment their salaries dur­ing the sum­mer months. Dorothy Vaugh­an and her hus­band, who also had sea­son­al jobs as a bell­man at lux­u­ry hotels, wished to pro­vide a bet­ter life for their chil­dren. So Dorothy Vaugh­an, for exam­ple, took up a menial sum­mer job as a laun­dry work­er for the mil­i­tary at Camp Pick­ett in 1943. Even after Vaugh­an, a moth­er of six, even­tu­al­ly land­ed a job at West Com­put­ing earn­ing about $2,000 per month, Shet­ter­ly reports that Vaugh­an would often take “a walk around the block until the chil­dren were done eat­ing. Only then would she serve her­self left­overs.” Vaugh­an knew what sac­ri­fice meant, and to put her wages in con­text, the aver­age month­ly wage for black women was only $96 dur­ing the 1940s. This is, indeed, a hid­den figure.

Addi­tion­al­ly, Kather­ine Johnson’s mul­ti­ple trips – rain or shine – to a ‘col­ored’ bath­room across the NASA cam­pus shown in the film are cer­tain­ly a non-threat­en­ing way to bring the top­ic of seg­re­ga­tion to new gen­er­a­tions. The scenes set to light-heart­ed music and the click-clack of Katherine’s high heels, how­ev­er, under­mine the ugly humil­i­a­tion of struc­tur­al dis­crim­i­na­tion and its detri­men­tal effects on body, mind, and spir­it. John­son silent­ly endures her long trips to the bath­room as well as a ‘col­ored’ cof­fee pot forced upon her until her boss, Al Har­ri­son (Kevin Cost­ner), con­fronts her about her ‘dis­ap­pear­ing act.’  The audi­ence cheers John­son on as she gives her impas­sioned speech about the indig­ni­ties she has had to endure. Yet the pow­er­ful scene is some­what under­cut short­ly there­after. Mr. Har­ri­son becomes the ‘white sav­ior’ fig­ure, rid­ding the depart­ment of the cof­fee pot and beat­ing down the ‘col­ored’ sign in front of the ‘col­ored’ bath­room until it is shat­tered to pieces.

In real life, John­son refused to use ‘col­ored’ bath­rooms, and appar­ent­ly nobody con­front­ed her when she fre­quent­ed the ladies’ room clos­est to her work place.  Like­wise, already at the begin­ning of the 1940s, Miri­am Mann, a employ­ee at West Com­put­ing – who was not depict­ed in the film – active­ly fought against seg­re­ga­tion. One day, Mann began to remove the ‘col­ored’ sign on West Computing’s table in the cafe­te­ria, even after a new one con­tin­ued to replace it day after day. At the risk of los­ing her job, Mann insis­tent­ly con­tin­ued the fight until one day the ‘col­ored’ sign mys­te­ri­ous­ly dis­ap­peared for­ev­er. She did not need a super­vi­sor to do that for her. And yes, Dorothy Vaugh­an did have to wait two years to become super­vi­sor of her sec­tion, but this achieve­ment was already made in 1951, over a decade ear­li­er than is shown in the film. These are just a few exam­ples found in Shetterly’s book, but they reveal the film’s missed oppor­tu­ni­ties to show vital areas of real con­tes­ta­tion by black female math­e­mati­cians at the cost of con­jur­ing up or exag­ger­at­ing con­flict in a non-threat­en­ing, enter­tain­ing drama.

Final­ly, as many his­to­ry-ori­ent­ed films do – accord­ing to Rosenstone’s arti­cle, “The His­tor­i­cal Film: Look­ing at the Past in a Postlit­er­ate Age” – the solu­tion of the main char­ac­ters’ per­son­al prob­lems might mis­lead­ing­ly seem like solu­tions to gen­er­al his­tor­i­cal prob­lems.  A Hol­ly­wood-style hap­py end­ing leaves view­ers uplift­ed, but – at the same time – it fos­ters nei­ther agency nor crit­i­cal insight. Hav­ing sided with the three lead­ing char­ac­ters, the audi­ence might just leave the the­ater think­ing that they have done their part by feel­ing empa­thy with Dorothy Vaugh­an, Mary Jack­son, and Kather­ine John­son and leave it at that.

Just as African Amer­i­can his­to­ry month cel­e­brates the neglect­ed accom­plish­ments of black Amer­i­cans, the film Hid­den Fig­ures does as well. How­ev­er, after read­ing the book, the word “hid­den” in the film’s title takes on an entire­ly new meaning.

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