Image: Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) with her male coworkers as Paul Stafford gives a briefing.
Hidden Figures represents other. Something Hollywood has continuously failed at doing well. The excuse for this failure is often that cinema goers (those who generate income at the box office) are usually white and need to relate to a character. An argument I feel is insulting to all parties. First because it suggests that the majority aren’t evolved or complex enough to empathise with people who look different to them.
That argument also undermines the importance of film and art in influencing real life. A power Ava DuVernay’s ’13th’ documentary emphasises as the connection between Birth of a Nation (1915) and the resurgence of the KKK. I say all that to say that representation and diversity and complexity of characters in the arts are important.
Hidden Figures struck a cord in those respects, portraying the lives and works of three African American women (Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson) who had crucial roles (at NASA) in the space race in a beautifully layered way. The complexity of each character (from Katherine Johnson to Al Harrison) triggered curiosity. I found myself interested in how Mary and Levi Jackson had got together, wanting to know where Vivian Mitchell and Dorothy (Vaughan)’s relationship went and much more. It’s a brilliantly told story.
Costume was a pivotal part of telling the story -in highlighting those layers, exploring vulnerability and challenging the boundaries of what might be expected of women -specifically black women -today. It was particularly interesting how varying shades of red lipstick were used to debunk the myth that red lips don’t look good on us. Asap Rocky we are looking at you.