History is often unpleasant. So unpleasant, even, that sometimes we would rather overlook or omit the bad parts of it. To do so, however, would mean to omit the important parts of those bad times.
Hidden Figures is about a group of African-American women who work at NASA during the Mercury Program and also during the time of segregation. It stars Taraji P. Henson (Empire) as Katherine Goble, a brilliant mathematician tasked with calculating the trajectories of the flight of the Mercury program. Though she may be the main character, the film doesn’t leave out the other people who also struggled during this time. Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan, a mathematician who does the work of a supervisor but is not paid or treated as one, while Janelle Monáe plays Mary Jackson, an engineer who can’t obtain a degree due to the school being segregated. All three of these women are simply brilliant. Brilliantly acted and also brilliantly characterized, often being smarter and better than their white counterparts, but due to color of their skin, are never recognized as being such.
This is Hidden Figures greatest strength. It would be easy to paint the casual racism of the times as being altogether evil (which they were, make no mistake about that), but director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent), takes a more objective view of the situation, taking a step back and leaving personal views out of the movie. Instead, he simply shows what the time was like with simple shots of segregated water fountains, segregated bathrooms and even segregated coffee machines. Without condoning or condemning, Melfi simply lets the shots speak for themselves and allows the audience to make up their own minds about how they feel about that.
That’s not to say that the characters within the film are passive to the struggle. Far from it. The struggle exists and permeates throughout every aspect of their daily lives. No one, not even the white characters, are exempt from it. Though many of them can claim that they’re not racist, they are still completely unaware of the struggles that the black characters go through on a daily basis, such as having to walk 40 min across campus just to go to a bathroom that they are allowed to use.
The most important thing this movie has done, though, is taught you who these women were. History often ignores the accomplishments of people that are deemed “unimportant.” Hidden Figures proves that these women were not only important but essential to the struggle of getting an American into space. It proves that their story is a story worth telling. And it proves that their story is also a story about America.