In any year I’d say everyone should see Theodore Melfi’s Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe. (Then again, based on the box office returns, is seems like everyone already is seeing it.) The inspiring film tells the little-known story of how three black women working at NASA helped shape a decade of exploration that culminated with the United States putting a man on the moon. It’s an uplifting story that celebrates tenacity, intelligence, and breaking through glass ceilings with conviction and courage. The aptitude of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson will no doubt influence a generation of girls to embrace their love of STEM while the uncomfortable pervasive sexism and racism that Hidden Figures refuses to shy away from should serve to push white people to be better than our forebears.
But, this isn’t just any year, and if there’s one extra lesson I hope audiences take away from Hidden Figures — as the new Presidential administration begins making good on 18 months worth of campaign promises to regress the rights of women and minorities, actively unwinding the progress made in the 50+ years since the events of the film — it’s how crucial it is to support women. From the opening frames of the film, no one around young Katherine Coleman tells her she’s not worthy because of either her gender or race. Her teachers and parents nurture her love of mathematics without reservation. As an adult, Katherine’s mother (Donna Coleman) supports her daughter’s career as do Katherine’s children. Colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali) enters the picture as Katherine’s love interest with some ingrained thoughts as to the roles of women but it doesn’t take him long to acknowledge and question those assumptions in order to be a cheerleader for Katherine and a safe place to land after long days of dealing with tacitly racist and sexist co-workers and superiors.
Katherine, played as an adult by Taraji P. Henson, isn’t the only one with a refreshingly supportive family. Audiences are introduced to Mary Jackson’s husband Levi (Aldis Hodge) at a church picnic, seemingly taking on the role of the beleaguered husband. He snaps at his wife that she’d know more about her kids’ lives if she were home and rains on Mary’s parade by reminding her NASA will never allow a woman — much less a black woman — to become and engineer. But where the film could have easily let Levi slide into “sexist husband” territory, instead Levi realizes fear of failure is no reason not to support his wife. Considering Hidden Figures takes place at the same time as Mad Men, the stark difference in how the men in the lives of these remarkable women divided child-rearing, work, and domestic duties is heartening. Despite what popular entertainment of the time (and recreations thereof) would have us believe, functional, supportive, loving families of all configurations existed.
Despite Hidden Figures not focusing on the inner life of Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), the effects of her family’s encouragement are felt as she dedicates her free time to learning the language of the IBM so as not to become obsolete in the fast-moving world of NASA. Vaughan then turns around and offers the same support to the women working in her division, driving them towards becoming indispensable to their bosses.