Films which leave the audience grinning rarely win best picture Oscars. Perhaps this is where Hidden Figures lost out to its grittier rival, Moonlight. The same might be said of La La Land, which is nothing enough not escapist, but the grin on my face at the end of Hidden Figures was of a different quality. It was a grin accompanied by a mental raised fist of solidarity, a grin expressing a suffusion of warmth towards the film’s protagonists and, most of all, a grin of satisfaction at finally seeing a film which shows female scientists as competent, capable and ultimately indispensable.
To summarise my reaction to Hidden Figures as a grin, however, belies the film’s gravity. Hidden Figures tells the story of three black American women working at NASA in the 1960s, at the height of the space race. Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson (played by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe) were all real life members of the “coloured computing” division of NASA, employed to carry out complicated calculations in the nascence of digital computing. We join them as the United States races to be the first nation to put a man into orbit around the Earth.
Based on recent films set in the midst of the American Civil Rights’ movement, it would be easy to forget that such highly educated black women were working in the space program at this time, an issue highlighted by the film’s title. Yet, despite their apparently privileged position, we are constantly reminded of the difficulties and oppression which they face as a result of both state-enforced segregation and racist attitudes. The obstacles presented to completing even the simplest task, such as going to the loo or drinking coffee, emphasise the strength of these women in continuing to pursue their dreams and the power of their common belief that they should use their intelligence and competence to serve their country, despite repeated rejection by members of the white, predominantly male, establishment.
Hidden Figures shows prejudice as a barrier to human achievement. There is an element of sadness in the careers of such inspirational women not having led to a greater proportion of women, and particularly black women, working as scientists and engineers at the present day. My hope is that this engaging portrayal of defiant competence will reopen people’s eyes to that possibility.