‘HIDDEN FIGURES’ FAILS TO TEACH THE WHOLE PSYCHOLOGICAL TRUTH
By T.T. Stern Enzi
Photo: Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan (center) leads a group of women in ‘Hidden Figures’ Rating: PG; Grade: B
It is hard to fault Theodore Melfi for his safe and carefully crafted “Hidden Figures.” As the writer-director of “St. Vincent,” he had already proved capable of rendering the sharp edges of a character like Bill Murray’s titular irascible curmudgeon into a suitable role model for a young boy in search of some sense of stability as a result of the chaos of divorce, which leaves him to fend for himself while his mother (Melissa McCarthy) works to make ends meet. The dark comedy takes the edge off the drama in the boy’s life.
Much the same effect takes hold in “Hidden Figures,” the story, primarily, of three African-American women—Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe)—who stare into the black hole of the intrinsic institutional racism in NASA and see their way through to become pioneer beacons of light for women of color. To focus on the oppressive daily slights and indignations these women faced would potentially alienate most of the film’s audience. Black folks, of a certain generation, might appreciate that take, but white folks wouldn’t cotton to the feel-bad reality most people like to believe is a relic of the past.
So Melfi and his co-screenwriter Allison Schroeder, working from Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name, hone in on the core humanity of these three women, their spunk and decency in contrast to the utter fecklessness of most of the white folks they encountered on a regular basis.
Since the broad narrative involves the space race of the 1960s, I would posit that Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson would be best understood as time travelers. Melfi’s representation of them uses humor and sass to connect with contemporary audiences, eager to dismiss the overt racial hostility. We, from today’s perspective, work ourselves into a lather over the injustices, defiant in our beliefs that, had we been around during those situations, we would have acted swiftly to right the wrongs. We smile proudly, in solidarity with the trio, urging them on because we know they have already done the heavy lifting.
But is that how it really was for Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson in those moments? Were they really that knowing and wise, that willing to hold their heads up high in the face of such treatment? As a modern African-American who has not experienced anything close to the social, civic, and workplace discrimination they faced, I wonder how the constant and consistent efforts to be better, both as working professionals (reduced to the inhuman label of “computers”) and as people (forever relegated to second-class status, even after proving their first-class worth) didn’t crush their bodies and spirits.
Maybe that is why the time traveler metaphor appeals to me so. It allows them to fly free from that moment in time, beyond even the singular instances where they were seen as fully realized individuals—when John Glenn (Glen Powell) shakes their hands as the would-be astronauts first arrive at NASA, and later when Glenn requests for Johnson to check the data before his launch because he trusts her more than the newly installed IBM mainframe computers. Truth be told, the reality, even in those frozen scenes, is always a hovering slight or demeaning intent—like when, again, Glenn demands Johnson take a second look at the numbers and calls her a “girl.”
So let them take flight and break the barriers of space and time, in pursuit of an alternative dimension where we might see more than their hands-on-hips, eye-rolling sass as a retort to the racism and sexism that is American as America itself. It would be something truly special for Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson to escape to a realm where we might actually be able to see the harsh truth of their experiences and acknowledge them without the need to neuter or leaven the uncomfortable and unfortunate drama with humor.