I'm not much of a crier, but I was tearing up within the first 30 seconds of Hidden Figures. I had approached the theater with some trepidation. I'm so used to being disappointed by films, especially films that try to put an inspirational bent on our country's dark and ugly racial history. But at the very beginning of Hidden Figures, I was looking at a little black girl—a beautiful and precocious little dark-skinned girl. And as her black mother and black father and entire black community came together to send this talented little girl to school, I started crying.
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I knew that Hidden Figures was going to try to tug at my heartstrings. The real-life stories of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, three brilliant black women breaking down racial and gender barriers at NASA in the 1960s, are enough to put a tear in your eye even without the aid of a stirring cinematic soundtrack. But I hoped that the film would not rely too heavily on white savior tropes, nor exploit black pain to make us all feel so glad that we now live in "better times," nor completely whitewash the realities of the Jim Crow South. I wanted it to focus on the heroes of the story—their bravery, talent, and dedication—while challenging the realities of our country's history.
And Hidden Figures did that almost without fail. Octavia Spencer, who plays Dorothy Vaughan, gives her role as the underappreciated and underpaid supervisor of the black computers (the actual humans who did computing before machines did) the quiet stoicism that it requires. Janelle Monáe gives a decent, if slightly stiff, performance as the spirited aspiring engineer Mary Jackson. And Taraji P. Henson is just wonderful (and almost unrecognizable from her role as Cookie on Empire) in the lead role as Katherine G. Johnson—the precocious little math genius we saw at the beginning of the film all grown up. While I have trouble seeing Kevin Costner in any movie about race (after having to sit through Black or White), he settled fairly well into his role as a cranky white boss. Jim Parsons, well known for playing the most annoying white boy in the room on The Big Bang Theory, portrays with easy believability a petulant engineer dismayed at being outshone by Johnson's math genius.
In a world, and a year, that seems to have really tried to drive home the point that it doesn't like black people too much, this film is the feel-good salve I really needed. And I am not the only one. The theater for the screening was packed with people—mostly black people anxious for a film portraying black people where we weren't only suffering or sidekicks, where we were instead striving and achieving.
And not just black people—black women. For so long, black men have been the representatives of all black people—especially when the subject is black excellence. As people who suffer from legacies of both slavery and patriarchy, we black women have been erased from much of US history, as well as much of present-day pop culture. But here were black women at the center of a Hollywood film, not as objects brokering peace with their vaginas (like in Chi-Raq) or as silent victims of physical and sexual assault at the hands of slavers (like in every movie about slavery), but as full-fledged people. Characters a black woman or girl could see herself in, even aspire to be.
No, this isn't a movie that you will have a lot of highbrow film discussions over. The waters of this film do not run deep. But it is well acted and uplifting and true. And for two hours, you will see the strength and ingenuity and resilience of black women. You will get to laugh with black women, hope for black women, and cheer for black women. For two hours, you will be in a room where everyone will for once want to be the black women on the screen. I cried and laughed and cheered for these black women. The rest of the audience did the same—even breaking out in applause multiple times. For two hours, we got to imagine ourselves as the heroes of our own story and know that, despite what we'd been told our entire lives, what we've known about ourselves—that we are strong and beautiful and worthy—really is true.
I loved this movie. I immediately wanted to drag every black woman I know to see this movie. I wanted to take my sons to see this movie, so they can see what black women are capable of. I wanted to take my womb out of retirement and give birth to a daughter so that she can see this movie. I wanted this feeling to last for more than two hours.
I hope that everybody sees this film. I hope that movie studios can see that they can profit even when their stars aren't white men. I hope this film makes so much money that we get more films like this. Representation matters. And even as a crotchety critic who spends her professional life mired in some of the worst of America's entrenched racism, it mattered to me—more than I knew it would.