One of the most heartening moments in Hidden Figures comes when Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson), exasperated by the inhibiting segregation she’d been subjected to in her day-to-day work at Nasa, has an emotional outburst in which she details the difficult circumstances she’s had to work under to her boss, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). It’s an extraordinary outburst that leaves Harrison speechless and audiences with goosebumps.
Hidden Figures is set in the early days of the space race, a period which saw the Soviet Union and the US jostle for “supremacy in spaceflight capability”. P. Henson as Johnson, a leading mathematician at Nasa, stars in the film alongside Octavia Spencer, who plays Dorothy Vaughan, and Janelle Monáe, who plays Mary Jackson.
They played significant roles in making Alan Shepard the first American in space in 1961. It’s an emotional roller-coaster that’s brazenly laced with incidents of upsetting institutional racism, which serves to effectively contextualise the fact that not only were they women excelling in a male-dominated industry, they were also subject to rampant racial prejudice.
During the film’s screening at Montecasino in Joburg rapturous applause and cheering, similar to that you’d expect from a soccer match, frequently reverberated through the cinema. The repeated dignity with which these three women carried themselves, their feistiness and unashamed blackness, draws you in emotionally and makes you desperate to see them succeed. The screening was a co-ordinated effort between that Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated, the U.S. Mission to South Africa and IBM.
The brewing romance between Johnson, a widowed mother of three, and Jim, an army man played by Mahershala Ali (who recently won an Oscar for his role in Moonlight) adds a lighter note to the edge-of-your-seat storyline. Monáe, who featured alongside Ali in Moonlight, shows once again that she’s more than a singer and dancer who can “let your booty do that yoga”. A standout contribution of hers comes when she cleverly persuades a judge to allow her to attend a whites-only high school in order to pursue her goal of becoming Nasa’s first female black engineer.
Spencer on the other hand plays the role of an unofficial supervisor at the West Computing Building who, despite being denied the official title she so clearly deserves, graciously leads her all-black team of “computers” and brilliantly leverages their extended employment after real computers are proposed to replace them. Her role here earned her a nomination at the Academy Awards for best supporting actress.
Together, they’re like Charlie’s Angels – save for the fact that they’re smarter, more inspiring and less superficial. Oh, and they’re black and based on real life characters.
Hidden Figures is the perfect film to take your young, black daughters or nieces to because it presents an alternative narrative for the black child who’s exposed to a world where the most celebrated black women are often pop stars or entertainers. This film shows them that they can achieve more, and they too can be geniuses.
That so few know of this incredible tale is telling of how black achievement outside of its stigmatised parameters is generally held to low regard. Hopefully, more celebratory and triumphant stories of black life will be uncovered as beautifully and as purely as this, for years to come.