Pioneers On-screen: Resilience, Empowerment, and White-washing in Hidden Figures

By Julia Van Valkenburg, USC MISC Scholar

  Hopper Stone / 20th Century Fox

Hopper Stone / 20th Century Fox

Directed by Theodore Melfi and based on the novel of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures tells the true story of three tremendously gifted mathematicians working at NASA in the 1960s. As black women living under the Jim Crow laws of the segregated South, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) faced substantial adversity at NASA, yet they persevered against all odds, driven by unwavering passion and immense intellect.

As a result of the fiercely racist conditions of Southern politics, as well as the systematic division of labor based on race and gender at NASA, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson constantly struggled to have their work acknowledged, let alone appreciated. Undervalued by a racist and misogynistic institution, these strong, brilliant women remained committed to their ambitions and the advancement of their careers. Their story is one of talent, drive, and steadfast persistence, resulting in one of the most inspirational and empowering films of the year.

  Hopper Stone / 20th Century Fox

Hopper Stone / 20th Century Fox

In addition to the inspiring nature of their story, the strength in Hidden Figures also emanates from the performances of the film’s stellar ensemble cast. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe embody their characters with ease and demonstrate a profound relationship between these women. Not only are they friends who celebrate together, but they continually support one another in more difficult times, which they face often. Katherine Johnson is a remarkable mathematician, and Henson portrays her with a fierce confidence coupled with intermittent trepidation. While it seems that Johnson is occasionally nervous about overstepping her bounds, her brilliance, self-assurance, and conviction overpower any reservations she may have. As Dorothy Vaughan, Octavia Spencer shines as the natural born leader who ensures not only her own success, but the advancement of her peers. Spencer plays Vaughan with a sureness, confidence, and patience that is truly captivating and moving. And as Mary Jackson, NASA’s first black female engineer, Janelle Monáe showcases her adept comedic timing and magnetic on-screen presence.     

 

Despite its success, a noteworthy criticism the film has received is that Kevin Costner’s character, Johnson’s boss Al Harrison, essentially fulfills the Hollywood trope of the “white savior.” Though Harrison’s fulfilment as “savior” occurs multiple times in the film, one of the most blatant moments transpires as a result of a storyline in which Johnson has to run across the entire NASA campus in order to access the “Colored Ladies” restroom. After Johnson’s inaccessibility to the bathroom becomes known to Harrison, he triumphantly knocks down the segregated bathroom sign with a crowbar in front of a crowd. But in an interview with Vice News, Katherine Johnson reveals that that never actually happened. Instead, she defiantly used the white restroom regardless of segregation laws.

  Hopper Stone / 20th Century Fox

Hopper Stone / 20th Century Fox

While historical films nearly always make changes for the sake of entertainment, the question remains, why insert that specific storyline? It seems that Johnson’s blatant rejection of segregationist laws would actually be more compelling to watch unfold onscreen, rather than the fictional political statement at the hand of her boss. While white allies have historically played a role in cultivating social progress, why does Hollywood keep creating storylines that showcase the white male liberator? It’s important to consider how these decisions, particularly regarding historical storylines, impact our perceptions of race, gender, activism, and liberation as a society and as individuals.

In spite of the film’s whitewashing, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe superbly exemplify the strength, courage, and fierce intelligence of NASA pioneers Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. Hidden Figures won the SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture, was nominated for Best Original Score and Best Supporting Actress (Spencer) at the Golden Globes, and is nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress (Spencer). While this year’s Oscar nominations are significantly more diverse than in recent years, it will be interesting to see if the winners will be as well.