This could just be my reaction to the current political climate, but has America ever shined brighter than during the Space Race? Ignoring of course the climate that the civil rights movement pushed back against, and the cold war struggles epitomized by Vietnam (there’s always history to ignore when highlighting greatness); has any country on the planet produced any image as inspiring as a man walking on the moon? A single man, representing all of humanity, finally planting his foot in the heavens; watched and rooted for by every other person – regardless of nationality, religion, race, gender, creed, or culture. That truly is representative of America at its best.
Hidden Figures further explores how NASA’s many victories are symbolic, not just of American engineering, economy, and military; but of the victories of the American ideals of equality and perseverance. It posits that America was the first country to send a man into orbit – and later to the moon – because it is in our ideals to recognize and encourage greatness regardless of where it comes from, whether from a Polish-Jewish refugee, or an African American Woman who has had to fight her whole life against systemic cultural and legal oppression that told her that the American dream did not apply to her.
Does this alone make Hidden Figures a great movie? No. And looking at this movie removed from all cultural context, Hidden Figures is just alright. It’s a formulaic feel-good movie that taps into a desire to root for the underdog and watch genius achieve greatness. Dialogue is snappy, direction and editing make watching people do complex mathematics on chalkboards almost as exciting as watching a rocket take-off, and the actors do a great job of matching the emotions that the dialogue sometimes out-right states they have. On every conceivable level, Hidden Figures is an incredibly competent film.
Probably the greatest thing Hidden Figures does from a formal standpoint is put Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe in the same tableaus we’re used to seeing every white male hero of the Space Race in. We get the shot of astronauts slowly walking down a hallway, but instead of the astronauts, its Spencer followed by the small army of black women mathematicians that put in the work to get him there. Taraji P. Henson gets her scene in ground control, surrounded by all the white men in white shirts and black ties that are “supposed” to be there. Janelle Monáe stands behind bulletproof glass, watching and critiquing rocket-capsules as they’re stress tested. Hidden Figures shows us that, even though they were largely second-class citizens, Black women were working for American greatness just as hard as anyone.
And that cultural context does matter. That this is the first piece of popular culture to recognize the contributions of African American Women to the crowning achievement that is America’s Space Race victory makes this movie more valuable. Hidden Figures matters because the first thing this movie proclaims, “based on a true story,” is proof that anybody, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, is capable of carrying the hopes and dreams of an entire nation – that Black and Female greatness are not just aspirations projected onto screens by a culturally-marxist liberal elite, but historical fact, and that it deserves to be celebrated just as much as the achievements of white men.
So while Hidden Figures may not be a ground-breaking piece of cinema, or a masterpiece example of film form, it is a movie that deserves your recognition, just as the contributions of Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson deserve the same. And I will also say that I will gladly support more movies that highlight and celebrate the women, the refugees, racial and ethnic minorities, disabled, LGBTA+, and others who have fought the hardest to make America a country worth being proud of. Because sometimes the most important thing about a story is that it’s told at all.