|Henson, Spencer, and Monae in Hidden Figures|
A Review of Hidden Figures by Nick Olszyk
MPAA Rating, PG
USCCB Rating, A-III
Reel Rating, Four Reels
Hidden Figures is a bit of a tough sell, market-wise: three middle-aged African-American female mathematicians work at NASA and help get John Glenn into space. Yet despite its ordinary setting of chalkboards, coffee, horned rimmed glasses, and Baptist casserole picnics, it is an extraordinary film in nearly every respect. It is this attention to ordinary people so often forgotten yet essential to daily living that needs to be shown again and again. Pope Francis called these people “the margins.” That’s true, but I would also call them “delightful.”
Katherine Johnson (Taraji Henson), Dorothy Vaughen (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Monáe (Janelle Monáe) work as computers in the early days of NASA, when the Russians had just put the first man into space and we hadn’t put up so much as a toaster. If referring to people as computers sounds demeaning, it wasn’t. They did just that – calculations, which then needed to be done by hand. All have happy, thriving families, although Johnson was recently widowed. Yet outside the home, they face a double form of discrimination as both colored and female. For example, there is only one bathroom they can use on campus, which in Katherine’s case means walking nearly a half mile there and back every time. There are even separate coffee makers, and they are expected to brew their own. Most of their white or male co-workers aren’t overtly racist, they are just raised in an atmosphere where it is never questioned.
Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), the head of the Space Task Force, informs his workers that they “need to invent math that doesn’t yet exist” in order to put their man into space. Johnson disagrees, insisting they use Euclidian geometry to solve the problem. “That math’s ancient,” a co-worker sneers. It is old, but it works. Similarly, most people in the film – black and white alike – can’t see a solution to racism, and some insist on new, more violent methods of bringing social change. Johnson demonstrates the answer is not something novel but rediscovering the common humanity of all people, that “in Christ there is no master or slave, Jew or Greek.” Frustrated by the oppression, she defiantly explains the situation to Harrison, who immediately understands that such prejudices are firstly unjust and secondly inefficient to achieving their common goal. He takes crowbar to the “colored” sign above her restroom, grumbling that “at NASA we all pee the same color.”
In this way, Hidden Figures is quite bold in its assertion that oppression is wrong not because it targets a minority but because it targets a human being. This is the problem with modern identity politics. One the one hand, there are experiences that unique to a group based on their perceived ethnic or racial background. On the other, drawing such lines can further push people apart. As both black and female in the workplace, our three protagonists are in a unique position to see how all lines can be damaging, irrespective of which line on happens to cross your path.
These hidden assumptions about race and gender are also seen in their men. Jackson’s husband thinks their community should be doing more to challenge Jim Crow laws, and it takes him awhile to realize how his wife is already working on it. Johnson meets a former soldier who is proud and valent, yet doesn’t see her unique talents beyond the domestic sphere. If he wants to be a part of her life, he must acknowledge her important role outside the home. He eventually understands. “I underestimated you,” he tells her, “and I’m sorry.” As of the writing of this review, they are in their fifty-sixth year of marriage. None of these men are fools, but some have to learn to their spouses’ space to fulfill God’s plan.
In all of these interactions, the central lesson is that our enemy is not each other but “principalities and powers.” Never once does Hidden Figures suggest that men or whites are evil but rather that prejudice is in all of us. Man’s response should not be to fight one another, but learn and grow. For example, Vaughen discovers that NASA has just ordered one of the first “electrical computers” from a then unknown company: IBM. She quickly surmises that she and her friends will be out of a job. Rather than smash the machine or protest inevitable change, she stays up late learning the coding language Fortran so that when a supervisor is needed for the new machine, she is the best choice. She then hires all her former co-workers and teaches them as well. This reveals how real progress is made: respectful of human dignity and acknowledgement of appropriate transformation. We can reach for the stars, but only after that care of our business on Earth first.
This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on February 1st, 2017