By KIMBERLY GRANT
Special to South Florida Times
In Hidden Figures, based on true events, three black women navigate racism and sexism to help bring NASA into the future with two new inventions: a sky rocket that will take men into outer space and an IBM data processor, which becomes the very first hardware computer.
Written and directed by Theodore Melfi (with writing help from Allison Schroeder, based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly), Hidden Figures puts a face on the women who worked diligently behind the scenes to pave the way for other women of color to forge a path for themselves at NASA. It’s a beautiful story about three vibrant, inspiring women.
In the film, we get to know Mary Jackson (played with tenacity by Janelle Monae), who became the first African-American female engineer at NASA. She has to fight harder than most for everything she earns; including petitioning a court to allow her to attend an all white school to get ahead. Mary also successfully navigates marriage to an activist- minded husband, Levi Jackson (played by some- what type casted Aldis Hodge), who doesn’t want his wife getting hurt in the pursuit of her dreams.
Set in the early 1960s, these women of color are fighting for equal rights and opportunities at work and the entire country is in racial turmoil. Luckily, Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer putting her brand of talent into action) doesn’t let closed doors stop her; not even at work, where she lobbies for a supervisor position where she can get paid for what she’s already doing (leading the all-black female “computers” in the basement of an old building on NASA’s campus). What’s so great about Dorothy is not just that she is a fighter who goes after what she wants, but that she is ready and willing to bring along others in her success. It’s nice to see women doing good for other women and not bashing each other for the sake of reality TV cameras. Then, there is Katherine Goble Johnson’s story. Played by the indomitable Taraji P. Henson, Katherine is a math genius who happened to be born a black female. She gets an opportunity to work with the brilliant minds of the U.S. to formulate strategies for sending men into orbit. Unfortunately, her ‘so- called brilliant-minded’ male counterparts are threatened by a black female as knowledgeable and skillful as Katherine. Even though she could basically run NASA, these men take pleasure in labeling and treating her as unequal.
It’s sad to think that if Mary, Dorothy or Katherine had been men, we would have heard about them a lot sooner than now. But, it’s nice to see that Melfi embraces the power of determined women who set the bar high for excellence. This bar is set not just for the characters in the film, but the actresses who portray them. Monae, Spencer and Henson each breathe life into their characters to show the different sides of the women. They weren’t just brilliant minds of NASA, they were wives and mothers too, who set a great example for their children.
However, the notions in this film seem ridiculous to me in modern times where ignorance has been seen for what it is: a lack of understanding that is perpetuated by forefathers who were just as ignorant. Yes, it’s saddening to see that the United States actually elected a man that thinks groping women is a right and not assault. And, yes, he is creating a presidential team with documented racists, homophobes and misogynists (starting with his pick for vice president); but Hidden Figures reminds me that there was a time worse than now, when people of color had not advanced to where we are today. It was a time when a black president was unfathomable. Yet, three women beat the odds and became forces to be reckoned with.
This is why Hidden Figures is so necessary in these times when the U.S. and other countries are frightened by what will happen in January 2017 when President-Elect Donald Trump takes office. However, we must always remember: it doesn’t matter the odds or the obstacles, we can make our dreams come true with hard work and determination. Just ask the ladies of NASA.