Hidden Figures, based on the non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly, is a film that’s purpose is to inform. The movie details the exploits of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson (portrayed by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae respectively), African-American women who worked for NASA in the 1960s and whose substantial contributions to the space race have gone largely underreported.
It’s a film that focuses its attention on the heroic qualities of its protagonists rather than the despicable shortcomings of the society that put them so far below even relative equality. We see our heroes thinking, calculating, fighting for the right to learn and succeed. We don’t see a montage of news footage establishing the status quo of a segregated country. There are no particularly lavish, violent displays of bigotry. No firebombings or klansmen. The antagonistic oppression in Hidden Figures is more mundane, more everyday, more systemic, and by focusing more on the battles of the protagonists than the antagonist itself, Hidden Figures presents the inequality of the times in an understated, sinister light.
Where Twelve Years a Slave shows us the utter sickness of racism and Selma shows us the terrorism of racism, Hidden Figures nonchalantly presents the bureaucracy of racism, the Monday morning of racism, the water cooler chat of racism.
Hidden Figures is a bonafide heavyweight. A sleeper that, to the eyes many, came out of nowhere to knock Star Wars off the top of the box office and present a new kind of hit film that displays a type of heroism you won’t find on any other screen in the multiplex. And it made bank and nabbed a Best Picture nomination while doing it.
It’s a film that informs. It informs us not only of National Treasures we may not have known we had, but of the pedestrian oppression of America’s not-so-distant past.