A Hunger for Films about ‘Hidden Figures’

Darleen Ortega | 1/10/2017, 4:39 p.m.
The opinionated judge Darlene Ortega reviews "Hidden Figures."
Photo courtesy Hopper Stone/20th Century Fox

Yet in many ways the struggles are smoothed over, suggesting the filmmakers' likely unconscious desire to spare viewers too much discomfort. The women live in nice homes and have wardrobes, hair, and make-up that is too art-directed to be realistic (a common Hollywood problem), suggesting that their lives, though separate from white folks, are basically otherwise equal. They vigorously call out racism with a clarity that was much more dangerous and unlikely in 1962, with consequences no worse than being ignored. And the impact of their words on white people is overplayed, as when Johnson blows up at her office colleagues about her long treks to the ladies room, and is met with stunned and chastened silence from her entire department. Her white male supervisor then marches down to the colored restroom and knocks down its signage.

I'm confident that scenes like that just didn't happen. Johnson's white supervisor never tore down any Jim Crow signs. Her most obstructionist male colleague did not suddenly experience a change of heart and begin bringing her coffee. Vaughn's nemesis likewise did not suddenly begin treating her with respect. Somehow Johnson, Vaughn, and Jackson and women like them survived despite the impediments of racism and white supremacy, but it cannot have been primarily because of changes of heart in their white counterparts. That is not how racism and white supremacy manifest, and as much as I appreciated the pieces of their story that were told in "Hidden Figures," I left longing for a more insightful and honest rendition of how oppressed people manage to endure slights that don't have an end date, how they manage to pull out their best work over and over again when no one supports them and no one applauds or even sees it. I'm still looking for the film that more honestly grapples with how it is that such figures remain hidden. This film brings important bits to light, but still leaves them partially obscured.

Darleen Ortega is a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity. Her movie review column Opinionated Judge appears regularly in The Portland Observer. Find her movie blog at opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com.