One of the most toxic attempts to dismiss the prevalence of racism is what Jenée Desmond-Harris calls “vanity sizing for racism,” the idea that a large number of Americans cannot be racist. That “racist” is a hurtful term that only really describes people so outwardly bigoted that they use racial slurs and harass people of color. But in reality, a large number, even a majority, of white Americans can be racist. Their racism is not necessarily overt; rather it is oftentimes more insidious in its subtlety.
Hidden Figures understands this. The film tells the story of three black women at NASA who were pivotal in Project Mercury, the mission that sent the first American to orbit the planet in 1962. The three brilliant women, Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), struggle throughout the film to have their skills utilized, let alone recognized, by their white “superiors.” They are confronted with misogynoir at every turn, whether it be Dorothy trying to get a book from the whites-only section of the library or Mary trying to receive an engineering degree at a white-only school. Segregation is an inescapable part of their lives.
But their oppressors are not the typical racists depicted in film. It is not random blue-collar white men who advocate for racial violence, but rather professionals in fancy clothing who use “precedent” and “rules” to deny black women access to the resources and basic needs they are entitled to. NASA is segregated, with Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary working at the West Area Computing facility, which lacks the technology granted to the white Langley Research Center. However, the three black woman continually prove themselves to be deserving of what they ask for. Eventually, when their skills are finally realized to be essential to the mission, they are allowed to enter white spaces.
Yet they still face misogynoir. Mary has to go to court to be allowed to get her engineering degree, as the only accessible school is white-only. Katherine is expected to do complex math with only tidbits of information, with “sensitive” information being blacked out, only available to her higher-up white colleagues. And here is where much of the less overt racism is portrayed.
Though she is allowed to work on Project Mercury at Langley Research Center alongside white men, she is still not allowed to use the center’s restrooms. Therefore, every day, she must run half a mile to the West Area Computing building just to use the bathroom. This causes Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), the Space Task Group Director, to interrogate her about why she is often absent from the office when he needs her. He is shocked to discover that she has to make such a trek whenever she has to relieve herself. He, and all of the other white folks working with Katherine, have never lacked access to NASA facilities, so the everyday struggles of segregation never even crossed their minds. Their privilege kept them in a bubble, and only when Katherine is pushed to the brink, questioned by her boss as she is drenched in rain, do her white colleagues realize just how personally taxing and damaging misogynoir is to Katherine on a daily basis. It is not only their active acts of exclusion that contribute to the oppression of black women, but also their passive acceptance of the existing systems of oppression. Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), the Space Task Group’s head engineer, claims that Katherine is not allowed into meetings or even to credit herself on reports because it is not within precedent. These fancy professionals may not use slurs, but they still do everything in their power to maintain the system of white male supremacy.
In a time where white folks all over the political spectrum have expressed their discomfort with addressing systemic racism, a movie like Hidden Figures is essential. It is a beautiful, inspiring film that brings to the big screen the untold story of three black women ignored by the white men who write the overwhelming majority of history books.
Black women are almost never recognized for their intellect, brilliance and value. Despite constantly contributing to society, serving as leaders, and changing the world for the better, all in the face of systemic oppression, they are still hidden figures to most. Who are some hidden figures in your life? What have they done to help you and the world around them? Please comment, and provide pictures of these wonderful people if you would like!