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Queens of the Space Age

‘Hidden Figures’ is the rare civil-rights-era movie to show that black lives in the ’60s were not affected only by racism, but also by the space race and the Cold War

(20th Century Fox)
(20th Century Fox)

Here’s a name you don’t often hear in movies about the civil rights movement: Yuri Gagarin. Why would you? While the pioneering cosmonaut was being groomed by the Soviet Union to become the first successful traveler to outer space, black Americans were preparing for their own journeys into the unknown — recently desegregated white schools, for example. On April 12, 1961, Gagarin became the first human to orbit the earth. Less than a month later, 13 black and white American activists who called themselves the Freedom Riders set out on a tour of the South that would, likewise, change the course of history, exposing the difference between law and justice. All the while, squirrelled away in Hampton, Virginia, NASA was trying, and initially failing, to keep up with both.

Theodore Melfi’s new movie, Hidden Figures, cowritten with Allison Schroeder and based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, tells the story of the league of black women working for NASA as “human computers” — elite numbersmiths — in preparation to send the late, great John Glenn to outer space. It’s an intriguing bit of history. Black women began to work at Langley Research Center after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, looking to boost the American workforce during World War II, issued Executive Order 8802, which forbade employment discrimination based on “race, creed, color, or national origin” — but not gender. The women of Hidden Figures balance lives as wives and mothers while, at work, facing the double bind of being both black and women. They were known as the “West Computers” — “West,” because that part of the Langley campus and its dining and restroom facilities were segregated. As the women at the film’s center advance professionally, they also become all the more aware of the inherent limits to that progress. When one of them asks for a raise, her supervisor (a white woman) says, “That’s NASA for ya. First with rocket ships, slow with advancement.”

(20th Century Fox)
(20th Century Fox)

That makes it sound like Hidden Figures is merely an inspirational course correction, a tribute to people we can all feel good about — people like Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), a mathematical savant whose calculations Glenn trusted so much he wouldn’t board the Mercury-Atlas 6 without her final cosign. (“Get the girl to check the numbers,” Glenn says in the film. “If she says the numbers are good, I’m ready to go.”) Or women like Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), the first black manager in NASA history and one of our country’s first computer programmers. Or Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe, in her second movie this year, after Moonlight), an extraordinary engineer.

The performances are warm and good-humored, without exception. It is absolutely an inspirational movie (though, for the record, I would eagerly embrace the Lifetime-y movie about these women some people undoubtedly expect Hidden Figures to be). But this isn’t just a historical melodrama: It’s a movie that, in its most inspired moments, forces us to question our need to belittle the genre to begin with. And it might be one of the few Hollywood movies about the civil rights era to imagine that black lives in the ’60s, particularly black women’s lives, were affected not only by racism but also by the space race and the Cold War. These things happened all at once. So when Johnson comes home from a long day at work and her daughters describe hiding under desks for nuclear bomb drills, I was startled: You’d think, from the history peddled by Hollywood, that the only bombs feared by black people in the ’60s were being hurled by white supremacists. It occurs to me that relatively little American art allows that black Americans are, in fact, Americans — and that threats to the entire country, rather than only those within the country, affected us, too.

It’s strange to think that the space race and the civil rights movement were direct contemporaries; it certainly never feels that way. One propelled humankind into the future; the other exposed racial attitudes’ anchorage in the past. Some artists have long been hip to the incongruity. Radical black poet Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon,” for example, is about exactly what its title suggests: “I can’t pay no doctor bills / But whitey’s on the moon.” One of the useful discoveries of Hidden Figures is that this lapse isn’t merely a matter of how we recount history. It’s a question of how history, and which parts of it, becomes solidified in movies. We’ve known since Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (and were again reminded with the 1983 movie), that the space race is ripe for dredging up every corner of American culture and history during that era.

Hidden Figures amends the narrative. That in itself doesn’t make it a good movie — but it is. It is undoubtedly entertainment: Its take on the racism of the ’60s is more mundane than brutal. Frankly, it’s too polite in that regard — it’s no Selma — but in this case there’s truth there, too. As both cowriter and director, Melfi instills melodrama with light flourishes of comedy — take, for instance, a repeated gag in which Johnson must run, in heels, half a mile back and forth to use the bathroom designated “Colored.” It isn’t really funny, but Henson’s bouncy, witty performance — and the quick clattering of her heels in the parking lot — initially allows that it is, before the humor of the gag slowly erodes over the course of the movie.

The gag is a key to the movie, making it clearer, with each iteration, that the boundaries posed by racism and sexism are as much practical as they are political. That’s something worth thinking about. And in a civil-rights-era movie about black women, and not the charismatic preachers on the front lines, it poses yet another subtle intervention. It’s a movie about what the civil rights struggle might mean, not only to those fighting for their rights on the streets, but also to those at home, or in the office, fighting incrementally.

As for the movie, it faces its own incremental fight — that of representation — and tackles it head on, starting with its subtle reinvention of the classic cinematic and cultural trope of “Where were you when …?” Someone is always at a party, or washing the dishes, when a voice on the radio or television intones that John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr. is dead; a black or white character pauses, shocked, to assess what this means. It’s a way of suggesting that history is both grand and intimate — that its broad tides crept so far into the private and social lives of citizens that even an afternoon spent cleaning the house could be set off course by a broadcast announcement. It’s also a way of uniting a broad spectrum of people — of every race, class, and location in the country — around a single, pivotal moment. In Hidden Figures, there is indeed a scene in which a party stops to hear an announcement on the radio. But it isn’t due to JFK or MLK: It’s due to Yuri Gagarin.