S2: The Black Elite (Outside the Box) – Highlighting Blacks in Prominent Roles in Film/TV.
Ep 6: Hidden Figures
There are many shades of Black that make up American history. Though there is a lot of bad, eventual societal progress allowed Blacks to assume roles in society, to an extent. The work spoke for itself and Blacks became the deciding factor in a lot of successful career paths from sports to engineering. Enter Hidden Figures, a biographical film that chronicles Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson’s impact on the launch of an astronaut into orbit during a crucial point in the Space Race. If the event rings a bell, it should, as it was a major shift for the better in America’s history. However, the majority are not aware of the integral energy these three provided that led to America becoming the super power it is today.
Hidden Figures is largely set in NASA during the 1960s. Blacks and Whites can coexist the same space without violent confrontation but women are viewing at an inferior species. To achieve NASA’s mission, run by Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner, must push his team around the clock in order order to best the Russians in a trip to the Moon. Paul Stafford, played by Jim Parsons, clashes with the prodigal child, Katherine G. Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, en route to eventually fulfilling history. Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer, keeps the intelligent Black women in check by way of managing jobs and ultimately assists with the implementation of IBM machines, yet constantly butts heads with Kirsten Dunst’s, Vivian Mitchell, who rides Dorothy like a higher up without proper title or pay. The story of Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monae, was most rewarding due to her tenacity to battle racism in society as well as sexism in her family life with her husband, Aldis Hodge, played by Levi Jackson, to realize her dream of being an engineer. What feels like a near cameo is Mahershala Ali as Colonel Jim Johnson. Though the Colonel is a real character in this revisited history, Ali is such an effective actor that anything short of top billing feels underwhelming as Katherine’s penultimate significant other. All these moving parts make for an enthralling experience as we are pulled into the history not from the common racial context but the goal to achieve something outside of ourselves as citizens of America.
What is most apparent in Hidden Figures is the sudden tonal shifts from light hearted comedy to weighted drama. Though the film’s score does a “good job” of influencing the interpretation of these moments, it still comes off subtly distracting as the audience is ping ponged between racial tension, sexism, and patriotism. Condemning actions while idolizing others makes for a confusing digestion among the younger audiences that only know of this time period from the history books. Though the implied intent was not to compete with itself, a few key aspects of Hidden Figures does just that. Competing themes and competing stories will often make the audience yearn for more. The more time we spent with Katherine achieving her goals, the more screen time we want with Dorothy in her taming of the IBM machine. Additionally so with Mary Jackson’s struggles with gaining legitimacy within the engineering community. The tonal shifts may come off as jarring but the style ends up becoming its own imprint as the audience follows the breakthroughs of these women in their chosen fields.
Hidden Figures appears to struggle between combating the Black person versus the woman. A similar constraint The Color Purple found themselves in, though for different reasons. Though both projects existed at different times, they do reflect progress on the same spectrum. Where one was bred in pure hatred and bigotry from both male and racial counter parts for that time, the other highlights and observes all the differences between the two different period dramas. While we still have a long way to go for equal representation, it is always gratifying to see issues being set aside for the greater good.
Hidden Figures is the kind of film that tries to say a lot with the two hour it has our attention for. All emotional nodes are hit to the point that we know what “based on a true story” truly means. The liberties the film seems to take know no bounds but it may all be for the sake of the story as the most of the audience is still heavily invested in a bulk of the seemingly endless subplots within Hidden Figures. If anything, we learn true progress has no true racial prerequisite as it takes both a little bit of ebony and ivory to push the status quo. As we learn Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson turn out to be trailblazers in their chosen paths, their journeys become a spiritual blueprint for those don’t have anywhere else to go but up.
* As Black History Month again comes to a close, Katherine G. Johnson shines while demanding respecting from all who doubted her.