By Abby Lass
The bigger the Hollywood industry gets, the more films it seems to produce that are nothing but a pointless grab for people’s wallets. That’s not to say that a movie can’t be entertaining if it doesn’t contain some greater meaning, but after a while you start to wonder why we keep paying money to watch the same vapid stories over and over again.
Though the concept of dramatizing real-life events is not necessarily a new one, the fact that the story of Hidden Figures has never before been told on screen is simultaneously shocking and cynically unsurprising.
The film, based on the book of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly, tells the story of three African American women working at NASA during the Space Race. Katharine Jefferson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) are “computers” (women doing calculations for NASA) in 1961, Virginia. In order to further both their own careers and the nation’s space exploration, they are forced to battle everything from segregated schools to the automatization of their work to the basic workplace racism that results in having to walk half a mile to use the restroom.
The story of a person facing adversity in order to aid the greater good has been told a million different ways, but it’s hard to remember a version so honest, so witty, and so real that also just happens to include a cast predominantly made up of people of color. This film is not here to obliterate the patriarchy and white privilege, but it subtly undermines these oppressive establishments in all the best ways.
The film opens with Vaughan, clad in a work-appropriate skirt and sensible heels, half-hidden under a car as she tries to get it to start– eventually succeeding without anyone else’s help. We are then treated to two hours of women doing everything from raising their families to teaching themselves to code to literally saving a billion dollar space expedition using their mathematical and engineering prowess. There are some moments in the film that are obviously more fictionalized drama than fact, but the strength of this film lies in the little, all too real battles that these women must face.
We ache when Jefferson is repeatedly told that her name cannot be on the mission report even though it includes her calculations, when Vaughan is forced to do the work of a supervisor without the pay or title, when Jackson says that if she were a man she would already be an engineer, because we know that it is all true. Obviously we no longer divide bathrooms based on race, but any woman in today’s society can relate to doing work and then being denied credit and recognition for the arbitrary reason that she is not a man.
The film also plays with the theme of complacency, with both black and white characters using the fact that “this is how things are” as an excuse to leave the status quo intact. In a particularly poignant moment, Ms. Michael (Kirsten Dunst) attempts to tell Vaughan that “no matter what you think, I really have nothing against you people.”
Vaughan, with a weary but firm smile, responds, “I’m sure you think that.”
It’s a simple and relatively fast moment, but it makes a profound statement about the ingrained prejudice that we all have inside us and forces us to think about what actions we can take to actively combat inequality.
In a time where many are expressing disappointment and frustration with the lack of diversity in movies and television, Hidden Figures is a shining demonstration of the fact that you can make an exceptional mainstream movie without a single white, male lead. It is a reminder of all the stories that have been left behind and how necessary it is that we work to remember the people who have literally gotten us to the moon and back.
So if you believe in the power of women, in the power of people of color, in the power of knowledge and its pursuit, in the power of thanking the people that deserve it, then go out and see this movie. Feel free to consider it your baby step towards tearing down complacency and discrimination in our country.