I fucking wish I understood math.
To close off Black History Month, this week’s Wayback Wednesday is dedicated to a movie that I think perfectly encapsulates everything a historical film should be: Hidden Figures (2016). When I first decided to reserve my last two Wayback reviews for movies that told inspiring stories about influential figures in Black history, I immediately knew that I had to watch Hidden Figures. By the way, you can check out last week’s review, What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993), here. A touching story that never fails to fill me with drive and ambition, I’ve loved Hidden Figures since I first saw it in theatres three years ago. Now, countless viewings later, I am beyond excited to share my deep and undying love for this movie with all of you. You guys! I get to talk about the “Taraji P. Henson Moment!” Nothing could make me happier.
Based on true events, Hidden Figures tells the stories of Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, three African-American mathematicians working at NASA in the early 1960s. A human computer, acting-supervisor, and aspiring engineer respectively, the women work in Hampton, Virginia at the division known as West Area Computers. At the time, the division was still gender and racially-segregated. When Katherine gets the opportunity to work on the analytic geometry of the upcoming launch of astronaut John Glenn, she becomes the first black woman in NASA’s Space Task Group.
I absolutely adore this movie. Which is surprising because normally a movie about rocket science and space exploration isn’t something that would interest me. Hey, I barely made it through three years of high school science, I’m a writer not a mathematician. That being said, the movie’s inspiring subject matter coupled with powerful performances and a moving message of acknowledging the talents of others transcends it’s scientific base and elevates Hidden Figures into a beautifully-told story that is impossible to resist. This is also thanks in large part to the ensemble cast who are nothing short of a pleasure to watch: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Mahershala Ali, Kirsten Dunst, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons…just take my money already. Amazingly talented and remarkably endearing, what’s so great about this cast is that each actor is tailor-made for their role. Octavia Spencer as the hardworking supervisor? Janelle Monáe as the fiery, young engineering student? Jim Parsons as a stuffy lab technician? Perfection. Henson, interestingly enough, is the only one who plays against type. Usually portraying brash and outspoken characters, this time around she plays the reserved and timed Johnson, which she nails ever so perfectly. Seriously, is there anything Taraji P. Henson can’t do? I really want to see her play a superhero. Oooh, maybe Catwoman in the DCEU? Hold on, let me call Warner Bros. Pictures.
Now that we’ve started, can we continue to talk about Taraji P. Henson for like, 20 years? To this day, I’m still baffled that she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for this role. In my review for If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) – which you can check out here – I mentioned how I believe that every Oscar-nominated actress should be able to pull off what I call, the “Taraji P. Henson Moment.” This of course is in reference to the extremely moving monologue Henson performs when her character is called out after having to run back and forth to the segregated bathroom she’s forced to use. Henson delivers this haunting and emotional speech about how unfairly she’s treated despite doing the same amount of work, how they expect so much despite giving her so little to work with, and how her pay is far from equal to what her white, male co-workers make. It’s a master-class in action that leaves me with chills each time I see it and believe me, I’ve re-watched it on YouTube countless times. What is it about Taraji P. Henson that make you fall in love with her? She possesses this hypnotic combination of charm, moxie, and talent that even if she were playing the most despicable character ever written, Id still probably go, “yeah, I’m on her side.” Luckily, that’s not the case with Hidden Figures and Katherine Johnson is an extremely honourable role for Henson to portray. By the way, did you know that this summer the real-life Johnson will be celebrating her 101st birthday? YASS. BITCH. WORK!
Even though I’ve seen it a handful of times now, I’m still on the edge of my seat each time I watch Hidden Figures. I think that’s one of the marks of a great movie: still being able to elicit suspense and intrigue even when you know exactly how the story is going to end. Each time I watch Hidden Figures, it’s like I’m doing so for the first time. When Katherine’s co-workers designate a separate coffee pot for her I still comment on how ridiculous it is. When Mary arranges to take night classes at a segregated school in order to become an engineer, my heart soars with pride. And when Dorothy is treated with the same respect as Mrs. Mitchell, I honestly start to tear up. God, the women in this movie are fucking incredible. Can we just take a second and acknowledge how important this movie must be to little girls who are interested in math and science and how gratifying it must be for them to see such strong women achieve their dreams? I mean, hello, that scene where the IBM computer needs people to operate it and Dorothy rallies all her human computers because she knows they’re all capable to do the work? That’s the movie summed up in one image: strength and confidence triumphing over adversity and prejudice.
One thing I find especially gratifying about this movie is that none of the women second guess themselves. Each one knows exactly what they’re capable of and what they deserve. All they need is the opportunity to prove themselves, something each one of them fights tooth and nail for. There aren’t any pity parties here. Each woman takes matters into her own hands and and relies on their own strengths and merits to better their own lives. One line from the movie that I think especially sums up the struggle each woman faces is, “every time we have a chance to move forward they move the finish line.” A haunting statement that I’m sure speaks volumes to so many people to this day.
I may not be an engineer or a mathematician, but every time I watch this movie, I’m inspired to work harder and pursue my own passions and ambitions. It motivates me to own what I’m good at and show the world how skilled I am at it. For me, that’s what lands a movie on my infinite list of personal favourite movies. If you inspire me to change my life or to help change the lives of others for the better, consider a spot on my list secured. You’ll be in good company with the likes of Aladdin (1992), Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), and 9 to 5 (1980).
Dunst and Costner are a lot of fun in their supporting roles, and I have to admit that I feel a rush of delight whenever they unexpectedly pop in movies no matter how small the role. They, along with the main cast, do a great job of making their characters feel fleshed out and relatable, endowing each one with so much reliability that you kind of stop and go, “hey, I want to learn more about you.” I really enjoy that none of the supporting characters detract from any of the movie’s leading ladies, and instead serve as either obstacles or opportunities they the women either overcome or utilize. The way that each character interaction is written is electric, so much so that you almost feel as though you’re in each of the character’s shoes and faced with the same dilemma that they are. Sidenote, I almost kind of wish that Hidden Figures would turn into an 18 movie franchise just so we could learn the stories of all of the other women who ere computers alongside the main characters. Listen, if they can make five Transformers (2007 – present) movies, they can make more movies about real-life, brilliant NASA human computers.
Honestly, it’s hard for me to write a traditional review for Hidden Figures because I am so in awe of this movie and have such a strong love for it. Once again, I find myself speechless not because of an absence of words, but a surplus. What it boils down to is this: Hidden Figures is a gorgeous biopic that tells the story of three amazing women and the lengths they went to in order to pursue their ambitions, be seen as equals, and blaze the trail for generations of women who would follow in their footsteps. When I think of biographical movies that are a winning combination of heart and history, Hidden Figures is at the very top of my list. And I didn’t need to be a math genius to figure that out.
Do you love Hidden Figures as much as I do?
Let me know in the comments or on social media!