Hidden Figures ★★★½


This is Oscar bait, to be sure - a tale of unsung bravery from a pocket of history, the vital contributions to the space program of three African-American women (and, it seems, dozens of others) at a moment when segregation was still the law of the land. Hidden Figures hits all the appropriate inspirational beats, and a few more besides. In fact, the extent of its depiction of triumph is part of what makes the film a bit odd and something laudibly different in a landscape of awards-season junk.

Figures is extraordinarily detailed in showing the absurd banality, and the death-by-a-thousand-cuts indignity, of American segregation. This is particularly important given that for most viewers, this very idea is appropriately foreign, or ideologically invisible. We are used to cinematic depictions of the civil rights movement, with showdowns in Alabama and Tennessee, and of course we have seen numerous representations of the struggle to integrate schools, the bus boycott, or the fights at lunch counters. What we seldom see is ordinary, smoothly functioning segregation, racial hatred doled out with signs, architecture, and faux-benign bureaucracy. Such images lack the drama of a billy club smashing a skull. But they speak to the greater evil.

So when Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) gets a job on the main computational floor at NASA's office in Langley, VA, away from the "colored" area of the campus, she is forced to hike nearly 1.5 miles each time she goes to the bathroom. When her supervisor Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) calls her out for being away from her desk so much, Katherine explodes, breaking down the physical and emotional toll of segregation for Harrison and her fellow (white male) mathematicians, none of whom have ever given a second thought to her needs as a person, or what her life, and by extension, black lives, are actually like.

Recognizing the idiocy of segregated bathrooms and coffee pots, Harrison takes it upon himself to integrate the NASA offices. ("We all pee the same color," he remarks.) And while Katherine's outburst is satisfying, in terms of emotional film grammar, the fact that she wasn't fired on the spot is a significant part of Hidden Figures' strategy of showing the past through a contemporary framework. This is the point at which one could lodge a semi-legitimate charge of conservatism at Hidden Figures.

It's not just that it takes the white man having a material need -- getting the rockets up in space, with a minimum of work-loss and racial friction - to accomplish what activism could not. It's that Katherine, the preternaturally gifted mathematician, can get to places other African-Americans cannot, because she has a super-skill that the dominant white culture needs. She demands change from the position of the "talented tenth," and change is shown to occur when it's practical, not so much because it's morally right.

But this is only part of the story. Harrison, who is not depicted as being particularly political either way, is a scientist. Similarly, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) is given room to exercise her gifts as an engineer by a mentor, Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa), a Jewish rocket scientist who survived the Nazis. He is shown to be a liberal, but what these men have in common is that they understand certain principles - calculus, propulsion, geometry, heat and friction, etc. - to be objective. This should not be a radical statement, and in another context it might be a somewhat reactionary one. Putting Johnson, Jackson, or computer scientist Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) up against, say, Angela Davis or Audre Lorde, it would be easy for the establishment to embrace "black facts" and reject black ideas.

But at the moment, all terms of the equation - African-Americans, women, and scientists - are under attack. This in itself makes Hidden Figures a much more significant act of remembrance than it would otherwise be. But more than this, watching these three women struggle in ways both recognizable (hard work, late hours, balancing job and family) and increasingly unimaginable (segregation- as-law), and succeed, is not just Oscar season uplift. It is a testament to the numbers. Yes, it shows that the power base will bracket racism when it is self-serving to do so. Yes, it may tilt the balance of power away from collective action, and more toward a doctrine of "make yourself indispensible."

But it also cements the belief, increasingly quaint, that the world adheres to objective laws. Math and science are the sum total of our knowledge of those laws. And one of those laws is that sex, gender, and skin color are attributes with no bearing whatsoever on human intellectual potential.

A radical concept, in 2016? Yeah, I know.