If Hidden Figures resembles so many paradoxically feel-good movies about discrimination, it matters that the characters tell their stories, rather than having them told on their behalf.
The three protagonists of Hidden Figuresâ€”Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle MonĂˇe)â€”are inspirational figures, women of color who rose to top ranks in NASA at the height of the agencyâ€™s public profile and influence to prove thatâ€”in the realm of science, at leastâ€”achievement and knowledge are what defines a person, not the color of their skin. But of course, like any period feature about people of color, Hidden Figures circles around the intense, inescapable gravitational pull of racism, the black hole at the center of the American system. In an early scene, the three women are accosted by a police officer who finds them stranded on the side of the road with car trouble, only for the white cop to display something close to deference upon seeing their employee IDs. But the cachet afforded to the women by their jobs disappears at NASA itself, where federal reforms run into both the prevailing attitudes of the agencyâ€™s Virginia surroundings, as well as the prejudices of the men of science who run the place.
Films about racism, particularly those set in the 1950s/1960s period that Theodore Melfiâ€™s movie occupies, tend to tackle the subject at its most fraught and violent, framing racism at its most rawly exposed. What sets Hidden Figures apart and places it with movies like Belle is the way that the film approaches the subjectâ€™s more common application in society, that of a series of microaggressions and nonviolent but nonetheless repressive demonstrations of imbalanced power. Katherine, a prodigy with a masterful grasp of theoretical geometry, is assigned a job with the team attempting to calculate takeoff and landing trajectories for the Mercury rockets, though her actual task is nothing more than double-checking the white, male scientistsâ€™ numbers, a job she cannot even do as half the numbers have been redacted as classified information. No sooner does she step into the room than one of the workers mistakes her for a janitor, ladling a trash can into her already full hands.
Henson, along with MonĂˇe and Spencer, occasionally voice their charactersâ€™ frustrations with these indignities, which include Mary applying to become a full engineer, only to be told she must take classes in an all-white school, as well as Dorothy having all the responsibilities of a supervisor while consistently being denied the title and commensurate pay. Frequently, however, they vent in the form of gallows humor. In that early scene of the women dealing with their stalled car, they laugh off Maryâ€™s impatience by suggesting she could sit in the back of a bus to get to work. One can see the full gamut of their varying capacities to deal with ritual humiliations in interactions with white superiors, be it Kirsten Dunstâ€™s unctuous taskmaster or Jim Parsonsâ€™s condescending, insecure mathematician, who always looks at Katherine with a disgust enhanced more than a little by his awareness that she is infinitely smarter than he. Even Kevin Costnerâ€™s Al Harrison, who heads the Space Task Group, comes under fire for being the kind of oblivious moderate who may be the true foundation of the racist system. Where the other white characters openly display their passive-aggressive hostility, Al is the sort of guy who can think of himself as meritocratic, badgering Katherine for her perceived inability to meet the demands of the job when she must calculate around blacked-out omissions and must traipse a half-mile either way, in heels, to use the colored toilets as there are none in their building, or even their entire section of headquarters. Henson gets a big show-stopper of a scene where Katherine finally unloads on Al when he berates her for the last time about her long bathroom breaks.
That scene is satisfying, albeit in the kind of way that steps entirely outside of the diegetic fiction to deliver a message beamed in from the present. What makes it work is how long Henson lets the tension mount, filling even the shots of Katherine scurrying across the compound to get to the restroom with a palpable sense of exasperation until things build to a head. The film manages to pull off other on-the-nose scenes as well, particularly when Mary laments that she would never be allowed to become an engineer to her superior, who remarks that, as a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust, anything is possible. Is such a scene obvious? Of course it is, but it also brings up, in mass entertainment, the crucial hypocrisy that helped boost the civil rights movement, that of the moral impossibility of a nation leading a world after the holocaust while continuing to dehumanize an entire race. There are also the subtler moments of defiance, usually among other people of color, as when Katherine dresses down a suitor, Col. Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), for expressing surprise that a woman could have so much responsibility. Forced to endure such remarks from the white men at work, she will not tolerate it from Jim.
Katherineâ€™s outburst may get segregated toilets removed from NASA, but her true breakthrough is being seen first as an equal, and then the intellectual superior of her white peers. Costner, so frequently the ally in movies, here tweaks his formula, viewing Katherine as a professional equal only because he cannot fathom the social imbalances that inform her life, but ultimately providing support in the form of advancement when he clearly recognizes her ability. Support is the bedrock of the film, stretching all the way back to the opening sequence that shows Katherineâ€™s childhood genius and the collection that her teachers take up to send her to higher education. The three leads all give powerful performances, but they also never let the characters get too far ahead on their own. It seems so long ago that films like this used to focus on one of those helpers, like Al, or maybe even John Glenn (Glen Powell), whose enthusiastic support for and deference to Katherineâ€™s calculations gives her clout that cannot be taken away. But such movies are still made, and if Hidden Figures resembles so many paradoxically feel-good movies about discrimination, it matters that the characters tell their stories, rather than having them told on their behalf.