Taraji P. Henson was snubbed for a Best Actress Oscar nomination in 2017 for her brilliant work in Hidden Figures. Simple as. Portraying real-life NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson as she provides vital calculations for the mission to put the first American into orbit, Henson is fierce, earnest, heartfelt, courageous and vulnerable. It’s a wonderful performance of the very highest calibre, especially given it was the first time the actress had done the heavy lifting in a feature film. As she follows it up by starring in action thriller Proud Mary, let’s go back and give her previous role the love it deserves.
Henson was the first of the three black female leads cast for Hidden Figures, soon joined by Octavia Spencer then Janelle Monáe. All three are superb, with Spencer being the best known after roles in Fruitvale Station, The Divergent Series and an Oscar win of her own for The Help. Monáe was at that point more active as a singer, though she also impressed in Moonlight, released on the same day in the UK. While the trio form a central group at the heart of the movie, carpooling on the drive into work and hanging out together in their spare time, the nature of the story divides them up to each tackle their own challenges and obstacles of discrimination, both as people of colour and as women.
Spencer’s Dorothy Vaughn, a fellow mathematician and acting superviser for the coloured group of data processers, or ‘computers’, is told she won’t be getting promoted as there’s no permanent position. She goes on to teach herself how to operate the new IBM machine and its programming language Fortran, despite butting heads with the (fictional) manager Vivian Mitchell, played by Kirsten Dunst.
Mary Jackson, played by Monáe, is assigned to a team designing the space capsule’s heat shield. But in wanting to pursue an official engineering position, she is forced to get a court order to attend night classes at a whites-only school. Her arc focuses on her fight to gain the qualifications she needs.
But it is Henson’s Katherine Johnson who is ostensibly the main protoganist of Hidden Figures, as she becomes the first black woman to join the Space Task Group which managed America’s manned space flights. Specifically, she has to help them crack the trajectories needed to get NASA’s astronauts into orbit – and back down to Earth again. It’s highly sophisticated, top level maths that had huge amounts of money and even men’s lives depending on it being correct.
Taraji P. Henson’s brilliance in the role boils down to her ability to capture the intelligence and dignity of Johnson, but also her determination and independence. In the scene above, Katherine is given the chance to prove herself by prickly but well-meaning boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Armed with just a piece of chalk and her own brain, she shows up a roomful of men by quickly calculating the landing zone required for the mission. Her “give or take”, after such an incredibly specific answer, is delivered with just the right amount of sass to make her point without overstepping the mark. It’s the kind of restrained but palpable confidence and belief in herself that she exhibits throughout.
Away from the NASA scenes, Henson also gets to play out Katherine’s romance with Mahershala Ali’s military officer Jim Johnson. After the two are introduced with a charmingly forced meet-cute instigated by Mary, the gender politics of the early 1960s are soon brought to the fore. Johnson clumsily attempts to pay Katherine an extremely backhanded compliment by discussing her work at the space agency: “I’m just surprised something so taxing…” It’s a fantastic cringe moment that gives Henson the chance to slap down another man underestimating her. She details her achievements and her knowledge to him before a subtle but pointed movement to push up her glasses, signalling that this conversation is over – and on her terms.
This third example shows Katherine not just reactively proving her brilliance but pro-actively attempting to push the boundaries, as she makes her case to be allowed in the Pentagon briefings. Harrison is told by Jim Parsons’ head engineer Paul Stafford that she doesn’t have the clearance, and that “there is no protocol for a woman to attend”. Katherine then very firmly tells Harrison “you are the boss. You just have to act like one. Sir.” It’s just another great moment where Henson toes the line between accepting the segregations unfairly imposed on her, both in terms of race and gender, and refusing to let them stop her from doing her job to the best of her ability.
The most overt Oscar-baiting of Hidden Figures comes when Katherine is confronted by Harrison over taking so long going to the toilet every day. The audience have already seen the reason for this, that she has to walk half a mile across the site to use a ‘coloured’ bathroom. She’s been quietly putting up with this, but here she can contain her anger no longer, and it spills out in an emotional speech in front of the whole team. Bedraggled from the rain, and at breaking point, her voice rises as she calls out the ludicrousness of it all, leading to Harrison storming out to the nearest whites-only bathroom and smashing down the sign declaring its segregation.
Hidden Figures is a very good film, though has its flaws. For one, not all of what we see really happened, or not exactly as shown. Mary Jackson was actually the one forced to trek a long way to use a coloured bathroom; Katherine Johnson later admitted she just used the nearest one which wasn’t labelled for anyone’s specific use. And nobody ever tore down a sign. Al Harrison, like several other supporting characters, was not even a real person. The scene led to accusations of employing the ‘white saviour’ trope, as Henson’s character doesn’t manage to overcome the issue herself; she’s rescued by a benevolent white man. Director Theodore Melfi defended the fictional moment, saying “who cares who does the right thing, as long as the right thing is achieved?”
These issues aside though, the core trio of Henson, Spencer and Monáe are all given the chance to wow in what was still a movie which helped push diversity and further challenge the perceived wisdom that black, female actresses can’t sell a successful film. Henson may have been snubbed by the Academy, but her powerful, controlled performance announced her as a genuine movie star. As Proud Mary again puts the 47-year-old front and centre, here’s hoping for a further breakthrough.