20th Century Fox

This review contains spoilers.

Normally I like more risqué movies. I like explosions, fight scenes, swearing, and not-overly-gratuitous nudity doesn’t bother me. So movies like Hidden Figures don’t normally attract me as I find them a bit too tame. However, being a woman in the tech industry (UX design) it hits close to home as a bit of an origin story.

Without the women of Hidden Figures, I don’t know if I’d be where I am today. As a young white female, I consider myself extremely lucky to have landed where I am, but I don’t want to even start counting how many times I’ve been underestimated as a result of my looks, or my gender. Yet, I went into this movie feeling that significant progress has been made since the early ’60s regarding women in the workplace. However, I walked out realizing how little has actually changed at all.

Hidden Figures tells the incredible true story of three African-American female mathematicians who worked at NASA, in segregated Virginia during the early 1960s. The unfortunate nature of the times meant these women worked in the “colored” section of NASA, doing grunt work calculations all day. Despite the circumstances, all female mathematicians working at NASA at the time kept the place running. Without their minds, astronauts would have likely died, and the space program would not be as we know it today.

Many know Taraji P. Henson, playing Katherine Goble, from her powerful/scary performance of polar-opposite character Cookie Lyon in the TV series Empire. However, Henson has been around for quite a while, and I’d argue Hidden Figures is her best work. Her intensity of the character is efficient, poised even. We know this woman well by how she holds her purse, adjusts her glasses, and cocks her head as she humors men who out-rank her.

Our first introduction to these three women is when their car has broken down on their way to work — NASA — and a cop stops by as they succeed in repairing the car’s starter. Their bodies tense, their expressions purse, and they steel themselves for the inevitable interrogation. In a foreshadowing of the final successes to come, the cop overcomes his initial suspicion and escorts them speedily down the highway to work so they can arrive on time. Their joy of following a white cop in hot pursuit sets the theme for the film: these women deserve recognition for their intelligence, but they’ll need a man’s help to get it.

20th Century Fox

In a way, these three characters represent aspects of any strong woman in the workplace. Henson’s Katherine is the untapped resource, the overlooked genius who has to be a force to be reckoned with to get anything done. Octavia Spencer plays the reserved Dorothy Vaughn, the mother/leader who has the most potential for advancement, if the abomination of segregation wasn’t such a cruel reality. Janelle Monáe is Mary Jackson, the rebellious spirit who doesn’t want to hear “no”, and struggles to let go of her justifiable distrust of senior authority. Any strong woman held down by gender inequality has varying degrees of these personalities running through her. Depending on the situation, a woman must decide which part of this personality shines through, or stays hidden.

I’m assuming the film’s title is a clever pun on the mathematical term “significant figures”, which is a fancy way of referring to the digits in a number that are most accurate, that define how much is “known” about the number. The right-most digit is usually the digit in which a scientist has the least confidence. Naturally, the title means the true significant figures of NASA are hidden, and this film is the story of their revelation to the world.

Kevin Costner plays Al Harrison, the head of Space Task Group, the team that lead the charge in developing the math that actually put astronauts into space. Since all astronauts were all men at the time, the emphasis on “getting them home to their wives” made me wince a few times. I’m so spoiled with innate workplace political correctness, I sometimes forget not long ago the male was the assumed default, the female the assumed partner at home. Harrison, however, just needs someone to do the job. In a sense, he simply as no time for racism or even sexism.

As the film slogan says, genius has no race.

It’s an important lesson: hatred takes time away from bright minds and great discovery. Your hatred will blind you, and cost you. Imagine how much farther we’d be if we had let these strong women into leadership roles earlier in our history?

Bring your children to this film: sons and daughters. Bring your friends, your boss, your parents. Not only do you see how leaders should treat their team, you see how men should treat their wives or girlfriends, how women should treat each other, and how professionals should treat their colleagues.

Knowledge is a rare commodity in this world and good people are hard to find.

Especially if you hide them.