A Black Masculinist Review of ‘Hidden Figures’ by Dr. T. Hasan Johnson

{{Spoilers…obviously}}

Let me first say I loved seeing Black women on screen doing something intellectually challenging and innovative… In short? I dug it, so let’s get that straight & out of they way. I also dug the humor of the film, from the sisterhood ribbing at pursuing a potential mate to the hilariousness of seeing someone explain how to use a mechanical pencil. (#NewClassic) Fortunately for  musician and film producer Pharell, this film will go far to disassociate him from his “new Black” past…

Nevertheless, Hidden Figures is–at the least–a celebration of black female middle-class sensibilities. It is not the story of scores of domestic workers, field workers, factory workers, or even entertainers from the same era (there could’ve just as easily been a film about black women from any other context in history). The choice to make a film about highly educated, middle-class Black women mathematicians working for NASA is a class-based political decision. Sidenote: Yes, I understand that this is a cringe-worthy statement considering the celebration of successful Black women in real life and fiction–such as Michelle Obama, Cookie, etc. And yes, as a good colleague also highlighted, ‘you’re writing this as the Obamas are leaving the White House and handing the keys to the Trump machine,’ so the moment isn’t lost on me.

Still, it is little more than a celebration of Black women’s middle-class sensibilities. It is:

1. a somewhat narcissistic affirmation of contemporary Black female middle-class identity, particularly in regard to notions of independence and a stoic capacity to endure White men, women, and Black men’s dehumanizing behavior (only other Black women are represented as being unproblematic),

2. a class-based re-prioritization of which Black historical periods deserve attention and thus gain acceptability,

3. a statement to Black men as to acceptable forms of Black female support and adoration (via deferment and subservience to Black women’s advancement),

4. a statement to White society about appreciating Black women’s genius (i.e. scenes regarding Johnson’s capacity to “create new math” while other, more highly educated whites stand in awe while imposing racist behavioral tropes), and

5. a reflection on the intersectionality-based notion that Black women are uniquely isolated as victims of oppression, subject to their men just as much as White society in regard to oppression.

As a colleague pointed out to me, “there’s  a way where White men have the the power to impact destiny in spaces such as NASA, far removed from Black men’s “control,” yet strangely Black men are seen as being just as impactful.” This difference is at the heart of many Black masculinists’ concerns regarding Black feminism.

The New and the Familiar

The film did deal with some familiar elements of the Black experience, such as one having to read one’s resume to Whites (or cops) to justify basic actions.

It did not go unnoticed that the “Jane Henryism” of Black women versus the IBM computer designed to eliminate their utility at NASA used a different tact than Black men’s. Instead of beating the machine at the cost of their lives, they simply learned to manage the machine itself and thus saved their own jobs. This was a unique take on African American women’s history, although I couldn’t help but wonder if it was a subtle dig at Black men for not confronting industrialization differently…

Yet some elements were new, such as the juxtaposition of White and Black men’s mating appeal. Particularly, the ogling of white men, shown just after the chastising of Black men for their “sexism.” (Although I must say this was done strangely. When Ali’s “Jim Johnson” asks Henson’s “Katherine Goble” if NASA “lets Black women do anything,” this didn’t have to be read as a diss. Suggesting Black women can’t do anything is profoundly different than asking if a White institution recognized their value. We often asked each other such questions to gauge progress and pass on info to others on potential places to work. I thought they chastised him a bit too much for asking such a simple question, then positioned him against John Glenn’s arbitrary decision to speak to the Black female employees at all–invoking an attraction for prominent, empowered White men).


It was also interesting to see the emphasis on the nuclear family. Feminists intellectuals have remarked to me how much they fear that such depictions over-emphasize Black reliance on the White family structure–and by extension Black patriarchy. Others point to their concerns about the Moynihan Report’s suggestion that Black women are at fault for single-parenthood and thus they push for a non-traditional familial approach. For me, the film’s emphasis on the nuclear family structure highlights something Black feminist scholars often avoid: Black women’s–not just men’s–historical investment in the nuclear construct and their comfort with the very idea of Black male chivalry when convenient. Thus, despite the feminist witch hunt to attack all things patriarchal, Black feminists might have to come to terms with their discomfort with their ancestors’ historical choices to opt for what they critique. After all, from Reconstruction to now, many middle-class Black women had little issue with the nuclear family or the gesture towards patriarchal family dynamics (or at least the appearance of them) when convenient.

Refreshingly, the film is not an overt participant in the “Black men ain’t shit” media tradition, but it does propose a new variation of it via the depiction of Black males. Seemingly virtuous and lovingly supportive, the two Black male intimate partners to two of the film’s heroines are hyper-apologetic, fully accepting of “strong Black female” behavior (accepting terms based solely  on women’s contexts without a word), subservient, and persistent in their pursuing of their mates’ affections and approval (invoking a sort of sexual John Henryism in terms of Black men’s enduring of Black women’s hesitance to trust them, sassyness, and criticisms). In essence? The film represents these two men as “options” for acceptable forms of progressive Black masculine performance.

To be clear, I don’t enjoy making these critiques. They harken to a period where  no matter the gesture, Black Feminists Nationalists found fault with any and all Black male productions, so much so that it began to appear as a hatred that could not be sated. The closest one could hope to come would be to be silent and attentive to Black women’s concerns…yet this didn’t necessarily generate closeness and trust, only the least amount of vitriol directed back at Black men. Some of these men continue to defer to feminists in such ways, suggesting to other Black men that such behavior is exemplary of true Black male progressivism.

It’s strange to remember the ribbing Nate Parker got for not depicting more Black women doing things there was no evidence they actually did, yet Black men who were historically present in NASA were absent–outside of the wooing and cowtowing to Black women’s mating desires.

Watching this film you’d be surprised to note that there were Black male engineers and mathematicians in NASA shortly after Katherine Johnson at this same time period at all. [Note, it is not surprising that NASA’s first Black folk were women, as there has still not been a single year in American history where Black men received more degrees than Black women.] In the 1950s, NASA saw mathematical computation and checking as a clerical profession, so it is conceivable that Black men would not be sought after for such work. But it pains me to think of how many mathematical geniuses were plowing fields or mopping floors…so much lost potential. In fact, Margot Lee Shetterly, author or the book Hidden Figures that inspired the film, notes that her father was a mathematical prodigy. Having built a rocket by junior high school, he was eventually diverted to being a PE teacher instead of an engineer. Ironically, the removal of men from her historical focus is quite…telling to say the least.  Hell, even now racism in the sciences not resolved, as this homeless Black man with a doctorate in Physics and a masters in Engineering can attest.

Still, one could suggest that the triumph of eventually having Black male engineers and mathematicians was that much more pronounced–and was a boon to the Black community and said much about our unvarnished potential–had these men been shown. There was also no depiction of “Charlie Smoot, called the “first Negro recruiter” in official agency histories, to travel the nation persuading black scientists and engineers to come south.” There was also no depiction of other Black NASA innovators such as, “Walter Applewhite, Wesley Carter, George Bourda, Tommy Dubone, William Winfield, Frank C. Williams Jr., and Morgan Watson arrived at Marshall to become the embodiment of [President] Johnson’s plan for jobs in the South.”

Astronaut Guion Bulford

Watching this film you’d think Black men remained either soldiers and janitors…(while ignoring the racial plight of being both anyway). We didn’t see the relationship between the formal Civil Rights movement, treatment by the Klan, and other racial incidents that became more life threatening as Black men came to be involved. There was also no depiction of the first Black astronaut in space, Guion Bluford (1983), or even Mae Jemison…clear beneficiaries of the sacrifices made by Johnson and company.

But even though it would’ve been nice to see such Black men, I wasn’t upset at their total absence onscreen, and I highly doubt you’ll find any Black male bloggers/activists who will decry such an absence.

(Although they could’ve mentioned that Goble’s first husband died of a brain tumor and wasn’t a deadbeat dad, but in digress…) Yet were the situation reversed, Black men involved in the film (from actors to grips) would’ve been harangued for not including Black women. And no, none of the men I mentioned are common knowledge and you know it!

At the very least, however, it might’ve been prudent to juxtapose how we traded an HBCU-to-NASA pipeline for the school-to-prison one we have now…but alas, you won’t see that in the film either. You’ll also not hear Black men suggest that we should just focus on all Black people at NASA rather than just on Dr. Johnson* and her pioneering STEM cohort as some Black feminists called for with Nat Turner.

*Katherine Johnson received a damn well-deserved Honorary Doctor of Laws from the State University of New York in Farmingdale in 1998 and in 1999. 

Nevertheless, I loved seeing Black women doing their thing and getting their due in this film. These women (sometimes depicted in slightly darker hue than their historical inspirations) reminded me of my mother and grandmother, and hearing my mother comment in the theatre while sitting next to me, “I remember that,” sent chills up my spine. I loved it. I’m glad our sisters have such a stake in the media industry such that their stories are being told outside of derogatory tropes…but I wonder if they’d appreciate a “Black feminist treatment” of the film, as they might be shocked at the audacity and pettiness that could be leveled at such an inspiring media endeavor.

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One thought on “A Black Masculinist Review of ‘Hidden Figures’ by Dr. T. Hasan Johnson

  1. Sent from a colleague:
    “Bro. T Hasan,
    I saw Hidden Figures last night. I thought it was a great film. For me, the main takeaway was its powerful depiction of black talent and achievement in the face of extraordinary odds. Although gender is used to get at all of this, I can’t limit it to black women or gender discrimination. Having stated this, there’s a lot to unpack along gender lines, as well as race and class.

    I have to see the film again and read the screenplay and the sources for everything that was written about these women and their lives. As I watched closely, especially the family lives of these women and their husbands, I couldn’t help but think that the writers inserted present day feminist tropes into the story. The sexism on the part of the black men and the female response to them, seemed contrived and exaggerated, all for the sake of making feminist points. The idea that black men of that era had to be prodded to support the professional aspirations of their wives was lost on me. How does a black man date then marry a widowed woman with three kids and not be supportive of her from the jump? What is the point of all of this? Who is this directed at? Again, this struck me as anachronistic, a feminist Hollywood embellishment. This has to be unpacked.

    What I’ve thought about the most since watching the film is the segregated world in Virginia which highlighted healthy black families, extended families in particular, and black resilience under Jim Crow. You got to see the black family structures that Daniel Patrick Moynihan did not include in his study. Those early scenes in the film where Katherine Johnson is a child were powerful, especially as they are shown against the backdrop of her parents who encourage her development.

    There is so much in this film to dissect, so many angles to read it…..Pharrell surprised me with this one. I have to agree with you, I think he’s gotten his black card back!

    My initial thoughts,

    Ron”

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