“Hidden Figures,” opening Sunday, is based on the true story of three African-American women who worked for NASA in the 1960s. The three (played by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae) are highly skilled mathematicians and scientists who have been relegated to lower-level jobs because of their race and gender.
One of them, Katherine Johnson (Henson), eventually joins the team responsible for John Glenn’s orbital flight, working under manager Al Harrison (Costner). During the workday, she sometimes has to pee — this means running half a mile (in heels!) to the other side of the campus to reach the closest “colored” women’s room. When Harrison finds out how much of Johnson’s workday is spent running back and forth to relieve herself, he grabs a crowbar and tears down the “Whites Only” sign outside the building’s bathroom. “We all pee the same color here,” he says.
It’s one of the moments in “Hidden Figures” where it’s clear that, while the women can — and do — chip away at the bars that hold them back, it’s much more efficient for a white guy with a crowbar to do it for you. That’s the funny thing about oppression: You really need the people with power to tear down the very system that gives them that power.
Johnson acts, of course, primarily out of self-interest: It benefits him to have Harrison working, rather than taking 30-minute bathroom breaks. He has no problem with a system that helps him until that same system starts hurting him. In fact, before Johnson tells him about her predicament — which she only does after he browbeats her about her extended absences — it doesn’t even dawn on him that having a place to pee is a problem for her. After all, his bathroom is right down the hall.
It’s rare that a film is so explicit about privilege, both how easily it’s assumed and how powerful it can be when wielded in the service of those who don’t have it. Moreover, it’s rare in that it doesn’t really celebrate the moments when men step up, because they’re doing things they should have done a long time ago. It’s not portrayed as heroic that Harrison knocks down that sign — and it shouldn’t be, because he walked past that same sign countless times a day and ignored it because it didn’t affect him.
“Hidden Figures” is a tremendously moving film about tremendously powerful women, but it’s also an incisive analysis of structural racism and sexism and a clear example of why neither of those systems will go away until white men get angry not just when they are affected (or when their “wives and daughters” are, as the patently irritating phrase goes), but when they are not. Too many people are quietly complicit in oppression; “whites only” signs are no longer visible, but the effects of them still linger, and it’s just as easy to walk right by them. Crowbars — both literal and metaphorical — are helpful things. It’s just sometimes they need to have been picked up a lot sooner.
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