By Titilayo Farukouye
I had swollen eyes and salt crusts under my lashes, when I left the movie theatre after seeing Hidden Figures for the first time. Yes! Yes! Yes! The impact the movie had on me was striking. Oh, did I feel empowered! I felt the strength of Black Womanhood! I felt the delirium of excitement, blurring my rational thinking. I felt what representation means and most importantly I felt like I could do just about anything!- even math.
Hidden Figures tells the life story of three legendary African American mathematicians featuring Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Goble Johnson, Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan and Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson, three of the smartest heads in 1960s America. Their story unfolds in an age and time where the “separate but equal” doctrine made just about anything in Black women’s lives more difficult than it was for their European American or even male African American fellow citizens. It was at a time when overt racism was legitimized every day and segregation, inequality and a lack of opportunity plagued the United States of America.
Despite these challenges, Katherine, Dorothy and Mary are three fierce, strong women working for NASA. Their characters overshadow the discriminations and inequalities they face. And the humour and bravery with which they encounter these issues is just inspiring to watch.
Working as human computers, they fulfil indispensable calculations that ultimately allow NASA to send a man into space. The mission’s urgency, due to the competition with the Soviet Union, deciding who will be first in the atmosphere, as well as the hostile working environments, give the movie its pace.
This speed is balanced out with detailed scenes of the women’s relationships with each other, their families and their partners. It is traditional images of almost cliché scenes that warm the audiences heart. That’s nothing not to love about this movie though, I mean how often do we get the chance to follow the everyday joys of the forgotten human computers and engineers of NASA’s past, hence African American women? Also, it is particularly these moments that (made me tear up so much!!) that remind the audience of the warmth of their own happy moments, perhaps shared with family friends and partners in our own lives.
Hidden figures also gives an impression of the Civil Rights Movement happening in and outside NASA’s bubble. And as Costner’s character, the boss of the Space Task Group, in an awkwardly funny, but by principle extremely dramatic and serious scene, proclaimed, “Here at NASA everyone pees the same colour!”. It is a moment that shows us, that it is the small things and that one person that had the courage to stand up, that bring change. The film shows that it takes interaction and exposure between different groups to overcome social hurdles as racism and sexism.
The NASA fairy-tale is a story about the USA’s firsts; America’s first man in space, the first African American working for the Space Task Group and the first Black woman in the US to pursue an engineering degree.
Perhaps it is also one of the first to celebrates women that have remained silently hidden and unnoticed until today. It resembles also some fresh air in the film industry, after a bitter #OscarsSoWhite Campaign. It is what celebrating American History looks like. It is a reminder that although Black Women continue to disproportionately struggle today, they are powerful and fierce and deserve the achievement of just about any goal they might map out in their head. And it is what happens when we admit the ugly and not so nice truths (like slavery and apartheid) of the past and present, allowing the creation of something tremendously beautiful.