It seems most fitting to begin this piece by stating that mathematician Katherine Johnson is a genius. Thus, a movie celebrating black brilliance sounds progressive, however the actual portrayal renders Johnson a “hidden figure” in a supposed commemoration of her legacy.
The film briefly shows audiences a young Katherine, whose academic ability foments opportunity despite the obvious oppression of the early 20th century. The film attempts to inspire audiences though depicting Johnson’s contribution to launching the first American body into space. However, in actuality Hidden Figures illustrates that black brilliance yields white advancement.
Audiences watch Johnson put in long hours, travel forty minutes to use the bathroom and endure a segregated coffee machine. Subversively, the film suggests that the only place for a black intellect is in a white world. This conflict is not exclusive to this film, but extended to all encompassed by the phrase “the first black (fill in the blank)” While this phrasing appears complimentary, it shifts the focus away from the individual of African descent to the white vessel who “accepts” them.
In Hidden Figures, this white vessel is Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner. Perhaps one of the most noteworthy scenes is Costner breaking down the segregated restroom signs. The scene received zealous plaudits from a stadium sized theatre. This applause undoubtedly erupted due to the mostly white audience’s attempt to overtly align themselves with Harrison’s seemingly integrative initiative. For me, this scene provoked an adverse reaction.
Watching this scene brought me back to a Dr. Carr lecture I attended almost a decade ago. During this lecture, Dr. Carr said that “nothing has been done for blacks that did not benefit others.” Namely, these segregated signs existed at NASA although there were no no black individuals worked in this particular wing. Thus, the signs served no direct purpose but to remind those who cleaned the facilities that they were good enough to scrub toilets but not sit on them. Thus, Harrison’s acts are not commendable—they’re selfish. This very deed exposes the fault in integration. The segregated bathroom only becomes an issue when it deterred white initiative. Namely, only when segregation proved an obstacle to his advancement and reputation was it taken down. It is this selfishness, not ideas of equality or unity, that continues to fuel black inclusion in traditionally white spaces.
Before concluding this article, I would like to state that my criticism is not to take away from Mrs. Katherine Johnson’s legacy. This article does function to state that this film is not an accurate depiction of this legacy. I would love to have learned more about her life pre-Nasa, the parents who raised her, her experience at school, how she balanced motherhood and work, and the strength it took to raise three young kids as a young widow. Hidden Figures abbreviates Mrs. Johnson’s life, making her a largely enigmatic figure in a film that is seemingly about her. Johnson’s hidden figure status in her own film suggests that all black excellence yields hidden figure status in a white supremacist society. In veiling sentiments of deprived visibility, the film highlights how imperative it is that we as black tell “our story” and not his-story. For the moral of the story is not Johnson’s greatness, but what history continually tells in in films like 42, The Blind Side and The Help, which is simply that blacks can do anything if whites think they are special.