Long after the rest of the world, I’ve finally managed to see Hidden Figures.
As a film, it deserves its accolades. Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, and Taraji P. Henson deliver extraordinarily powerful performances, ably framed by Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell, Kirsten Dunst, and Kevin Costner. It follows some of the conventions of a biopic, but manages to marry biopic with the pacing of an action film for a smooth, elegant and taut narrative that combines to tell a triumphant story about science, courage, and perseverance. And it is beautifully shot.
As critics, we know—or we ought to know—that how we react to a piece of art, what we say about it, and how we frame our response, says as much about ourselves as the work in question. So when my first reaction to Hidden Figures is to see it as a really interesting film about power, and about the power of community and friendship and persistence in the face of intense discouragement, that probably has a lot to do with the lenses through which I see the world.
But one of the reasons why Hidden Figures is so interesting is because of power. It’s a film about racism (and sexism) in science, and how hierarchies of power are constructed (and maintained) that act in ways both explicit and subtle to deny people access to information, credit for their achievements, and equal dignity as humans. In Hidden Figures, we see these hierarchies act upon genius mathematician Katherine Goble (later Johnson), Mary Jackson, who eventually became NASA’s first black female engineer, and Dorothy Vaughan, who teaches herself and the other women of the coloured mathematical computing pool the Fortran programming language when NASA starts installing IBM computers to replace human computers, and becomes not only NASA’s first black female supervisor, but someone we’d probably call a computer scientist these days.
But we also see how Goble, Jackson, and Vaughan—and their communities—resist these hierarchies. From the film’s opening scenes, when Monáe’s Mary Jackson recasts their police escort to NASA’s Langley offices as “three black women chasing a white policeman down the highway,” Hidden Figures shows both the strain of negotiating oppressive hierarchies of power—and the kinds of power that can be used to both navigate (and subtly oppose) those hierarchies, and sustain the people doing the navigating. The emotional core of Hidden Figures, it feels to me, is the friendship between these three women, and the ways in which they support each other emotionally. (There is a very sweet scene in which Janelle Monáe’s Jackson and Octavia Spencer’s Vaughan are basically the best wingwomen in setting up Taraji P. Henson’s Goble with Mahershala Ali’s handsome well-set-up Colonel Johnson.)
Hidden Figures is a film based on a true story. But in its foregrounding of the importance of American black women’s intellects and accomplishments, black women’s communities, black women’s solidarity, black women’s persistence, and black women’s courage, there is, I think, a lesson and a challenge for people working in science fiction and fantasy. These are things that deserve to have a place in the limelight.
Also, damn, but that is a fabulous film.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Find her at her blog. Or her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.