Intersectional feminism triumphs in ‘Hidden Figures’

Izzy Smith examines the racial issues at play in the Oscar-nominated film, 'Hidden Figures'

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For me, one of the most powerful moments of Hidden Figures came near the end: the protagonist, Katherine Johnson (Taraji Henson), an incredible mathematician, has just checked through some vital calculations under immense pressure. Her accuracy is a matter of life or death for astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell), about to be blown into space. She runs to the control room from the segregated West Campus and, panting, relinquishes her work into the hands of a white man—and the door closes on her. Hidden Figures illustrates how equality benefits everyone, with NASA’s ambitious goals making the truth unavoidable: that equal opportunity is necessary to find the best person for the job, and that it increases productivity and innovation.

However, despite NASA’s need for the skills and intelligence of the three central characters—historical figures Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), all black women—we are shown again and again their work accepted and appropriated without reward or recognition. Mathematician Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) blocks Katherine from putting her name on their joint projects while, despite Dorothy’s supervisory work being vital to the efficiency of her team, she is denied the title or pay of a supervisor.

The film demands audiences to confront flaws in their own thinking, rather than feel detached. Racist and sexist characters abound, but are understandable rather than demonised, contextualised within an oppressive system. While we understand his ambition, systemic inequality facilitates Paul exploiting his privilege to obtain unfair career advantages: here, competition and inequality form a toxic combination.

Vitally for a film about the black female experience, it pulls no punches in demonstrating the importance of an intersectional approach to examining inequality. The white women are hyperaware of the fragility and novelty of their own place within NASA, and understandably but destructively neglect to use what privilege they have to raise up the black women around them. This is most clearly explored through the relationship between Dorothy and her manager Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), with the latter clearly apathetic about Dorothy’s application for a supervisory role, and about black women at NASA in general, whose careers she callously admits will be ruined by the installation of a mechanical computer.

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When Vivian tries to colour her wilful apathy as harmless, claiming, “I have nothing against y’all.” Dorothy’s response, “I know you believe that,” elegantly sums up the truth of the matter: by remaining neutral in a situation of injustice, Vivian has chosen the side of the oppressor, and it is only her racial biases that have enabled her to tolerate this blatant unfairness so comfortably. Her worldview is jarred by Dorothy’s insistence that she will only accept a promotion if she can protect the black women she supervises. We also watch the black men learn to raise up and support the women in their lives. Jim must respect Katherine as a mathematician and mother before she will accept his proposal, and Mary’s previously disparaging husband comes to support her career and education, presenting her with mechanical pencils before her first class at a white evening school.

The impact of apparently mundane discrimination plays out beautifully during sequences of Katherine running for half a mile in the obligatory heels to the nearest black women’s bathroom, often mixed into montages of her team hard at work. Linking these to Pharrell Williams’ song ‘Runnin,’ highlights the needless repetition to which she is subject and the ridiculous amount of time consumed by such a banal task. Crucially, it is because of her reduction in productivity and own impassioned arguments that the bathroom is de-segregated. It is comically satisfying when we see a white man sent running this same half mile to fetch Katherine, when her skills are needed. Watching them run back together, we hope at least this one man may question these unnecessary obstructions. But they reach the door, he goes through without her, and it slams in her face.

The three central characters are warm, strong and exceptionally hardworking, dancing, joking and laughing together despite terrible injustice. Mary is particularly entertaining, seizing the chance for a police escort to work and declaring, “Three negro women are chasing a white police officer down a highway in 1961. That is a God-ordained miracle.” We cannot help but admire them, but are kept constantly aware that how hard they have to work is disproportionate to what they are allowed to achieve. They can receive the education they need only by pursuing ground-breaking court rulings, or stealing books from the white library, children in tow. When a room full of white men, plus Katherine, are told they are going to be working overtime for no extra pay, we know that the burden will not fall evenly, nor is ordinary pay remotely the same for her as for them.

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Hidden Figures allows us to root for these women’s struggle and rejoice in their triumphs, while never letting us forget how hard-won those were, or feel comfortably separate from the problems they face.