Hidden Figures (2017); And the Hopeful Rise of Black Women in Society
For too long, Hollywood has underestimated the role of Black women at the forefront of film. Often times in cinema we (Black women) are relegated to supporting roles and set as background pieces, rarely ever possessing the agency to explore our multifaceted selves on screen. Some people may not be aware of this, but Black women are humans too. We laugh, we cry, we hurt, we hate, we anger, we love, we achieve, and we’re smart. We retain an outlook on society that many groups don’t possess. Not only are we hindered and shaped by our race but we are also affected by our gender, and yet often times society forgets—or rather ignores that fact.
The abolitionist and feminist Sojourner Truth fought for equality of all women during the first wave of feminism, while an unfortunate many white suffragists only cared about a white woman’s own access to civil rights. During the 2nd wave, the same dissonance took place and continues to happen time and again. Even this past weekend’s powerful women’s march (that was initiated by women of color) was marred by conflict as white women seemingly hijacked the movement and spoke out against focusing on racial relations. While Black women fight to support the freedom of all women through our own social liberation, many others have left us to fight our intersectional battle alone. It’s not as though we need a savior to help us achieve, but it would be amazing to have assistance from those who live in the spotlight to help us get seen in the shadows.
This is what is so admirable and amazing about Hidden Figures. Screenplay co-writer Allison Schroeder used her own personal privilege as a white woman to uplift and highlight the largely unknown story of how three Black women—along with a team of women of color—made waves at NASA with their brilliant minds. These women, known as “computers,” overcame racial stereotypes, barriers and blunt hate to do their jobs to the best of their abilities. Their minds and hard work helped put John Glenn into space in 1962 and send three astronauts to the moon seven years later. I’ll repeat: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson, along with an entire colored department at NASA, helped put a man in space and on the freaking moon. American wouldn’t be the America we know now, or knew, had these events not taken place.
Schroeder’s co-written script with director Theodore Melfi helps cement the intensity and relevant urgency of Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction novel with an ensemble cast of divine actors. And can we just thank the heavens for Taraji P. Henson’s slide into the mainstream? In these post-“Empire” days, she is no longer limited to roles that are only seen by majority Black audiences and thus ignored by the mainstream. This woman is an incredible actor and a force to be reckoned with and now the world recognizes it. Henson delivers a powerful performance emoting with great passion when necessary and reacting in timid, slightness when appropriate for her character.
Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae give rousing performances shining in their own right as two strong women who refuse to let the status quo keep them from achieving their goals. Monae as Jackson struggles to become an engineer, but gets roadblocked by segregation and racial bias that prevents her from furthering her education. Spencer as Vaughan has desires to move upward in her department, but is continually denied access despite being entrusted with supervisor responsibilities and workload without the pay or title. Both women refuse to go down without a fight and instead take initiative that grants them the opportunity to move forward. Monae and Spencer both play their roles with a fierce tenacity that is both inspiring and warm.
Vaughan, Jackson, and Johnson were all brilliant women who were blessed to experience greatness despite the era they were born into. Although their tales went largely unknown for some time, they received resurgence when Shetterly’s novel in the making prompted producers to take notice and buy the rights to make a film. These women are just three of many who have achieved great success that directly attributed to the illustrious status of this country, but they will forever go unearthed because of the simple fact that their skin color rendered it acceptable to ignore their legacy.
Hidden Figures is powerful for showing how utterly foolish and frankly stupid humans beings continue to be for denying others basic rights and opportunities over biological differences in melanin and anatomy. Maybe one day we’ll reach a place where films of this nature will simply be a way to highlight the extraordinary tales of people who slip through the cracks of notoriety in history, instead of needing to be a tool that repeatedly teaches us to not be ignorant, racist assholes. But in this social climate it feels like these stories need to taught a little while longer.
SEE IT. And contribute to uplifting women of color instead of ignoring us.