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Hidden Figures, Hidden Stories

There is a repeated scene throughout Hidden Figures in which Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) types her name into the bylines of her reports only to be told that “computers” (most of whom are women) don’t author papers; she must erase her identity from her work. This scene helps explain why the contributions of Johnson and other women were forgotten for so long, but it also says something important about which stories, and whose contributions, we validate as part of our culture.

When the hashtag #Oscarssowhite erupted, there were two main issues in play: First, how many excellent people of color had been overlooked in the 2016 awards season (and how few actors, writers, and directors of color had won in the almost-ninety-year history of the Oscars). And second, that when people of color were recognized, it was almost always for movies that depicted the horrors of slavery or the struggle of civil rights, the implication being that there were only certain stories about being black in America that were acceptable as “art.” That only stories of black suffering (caused by or alleviated by whites) had broader audience appeal or artistic merit, while stories of black people living life on their own terms couldn’t capture the attention of a broader (re: white) audience.

Hidden Figures, which made almost $22 million its opening weekend, definitively proves that is not true.  Without offering spoilers, one of the most refreshing things about the film is that it tells the story of three women who are full people. Aside from their contrasting personalities, the three protagonists have very different approaches to their work, and different priorities around raising their children. Each defines what success means and how to achieve it in her own way, and each has a complex life outside work. While the movie includes white characters, it doesn’t offer the tropes of whites as saviors or of “magical negroes” who selflessly help the white protagonists with no needs or drives of their own, which is particularly noticeable because a typical movie about NASA is very goal-oriented: the characters’ only focus is either getting someone into space (The Right Stuff) or getting them safely back to Earth (Apollo 13, or The Martian). But while the three main characters of Hidden Figures care deeply about the success of their mission, they care just as much about whether technological progress will put them out of work and what they can do, singly and collectively, to ensure their working lives go beyond this one great project.

Despite the film industry’s long-held fears that white audiences won’t identify with black characters, there are many moments in Hidden Figures that are powerfully universal in their particularity. Most people know the nervousness of getting back in the dating pool after a long stretch of being single, or the frustration of unofficially taking over a demanding job without getting the title or salary that position should bring; regardless of race, we know the ache of withholding complicated truths from children to avoid bruising their dreams. This is a story anyone can engage and identify with, and the theater where I saw the movie, which was packed with mostly white men and women, was a testament to a universal truth: people have a thirst for stories, not just for stories about people who look like them.

When I first started working for JWA, I was surprised (and immediately embarrassed by my surprise) at how many male educators were coming to us for teaching materials, how many male readers wrote in with comments, wanting to know more about someone on our site. Even I, who believed in the importance of women’s stories, couldn’t believe that men might feel the same way. That kind of failure of imagination diminishes us all. When we assume that men only want to hear stories about men, or whites only want to hear stories about whites, stories of women and minorities are marketed only to niche audiences, or are erased from our culture (and our history) altogether, and everybody loses. Instead, we should recognize the gift of offering people a glimpse into lives different from their own and allowing people to stretch their imaginations and sense of empathy by delighting in a fuller spectrum of stories.

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Hidden Figures Movie Still
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Movie Still from the film Hidden Figures starring Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson, and Octavia Spencer and directed by Theodore Melfi (2017). 

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How to cite this page

Feld, Lisa Batya. "Hidden Figures, Hidden Stories." 11 January 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 11, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/hidden-figures-hidden-stories>.

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