Hidden Figures and the Appeal of Math in an Age of Inequality

The fantastic new film treats numbers as an instrument of meritocracy. It’s not alone in that.

Twentieth Century Fox

“Get the girl to check the numbers,” John Glenn says, in a pivotal scene in the wonderful film Hidden Figures. The soon-to-be-star-astronaut is on the ground at Cape Canaveral, clad in his gleaming spacesuit, the Friendship 7 capsule he will soon be piloting waiting for him to board it. Glenn is about to become the first American to orbit the Earth; in that, he is also about to put his life in the hands of NASA, the still-relatively-new American space agency. He would prefer that the numbers that will determine whether he survives the flight will, indeed, check out.

And so: They get the girl. The numbers check out. The rest is history.

Well, the rest is newly common history. Hidden Figures, as its title suggests, is a movie that knows that humans’s capacity to remember our past is outmatched only by our capacity to forget. But it is also, as its title (and that title’s wordplay) further suggest, a movie that celebrates the subtle ways that humans and numbers can weave and wind to make history what it is. The film, which tells the story of three of the many black women who helped the United States to win the space race, is a work of history, and a collective biopic, and a beautifully rendered drama of the small-scale victories that lead to large-scale progress. It is also, however, a movie-long exploration of the ways that “checking the numbers” is, as a proposition, both complicated and saliently simple. On the one hand: Culture being what it is, and racism being what it is, even the straightforward making of calculations, in the America of the 1960s, was fraught. Even something as basic as math was once regarded as a privilege that could be practiced, at the highest levels, only by the white and the male.

And yet Hidden Figures, ultimately, celebrates numbers. Not just as tools for understanding the world, but as instruments for making it better. Get the girl to check the numbers. Because lives are at stake, and that fact, right now, transcends everything else, and “the girl”—Katherine Johnson—is objectively better with those numbers than anyone else around. And what Hidden Figures also knows—and what the book that occasioned the film knows, as well—is that numbers, when they can be freed of their human freight, are leveling. They do not care about one’s gender. They do not care about one’s creed. They do not care about the color of one’s skin. They can be used by anyone who cares to learn their ways. “Mathematics,” the scientist Ellie Arroway puts it in Contact, “is the only truly universal language.”

Hidden Figures tells a story of the early American space program, which is also to say that it tells a story of the boring bureaucracy that is so often required to make history. Katherine Goble, later Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), is, like her good friends Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), a calculator at NASA, doing the work that machines would soon come to do. Goble is a prodigy, however, and her gifts, thus far sorely underutilized, finally meet the moment with the mathematical demands of the Mercury program: NASA needs someone skilled at geometry to help to calculate the flight trajectories that will make the difference between life and death, and between progress and tragedy.

Katherine is black. She is a woman. She is a single mother. She is, in short, many of the things that Americans living in the still-segregated Virginia of the 1960s were supposed to, to the extent they possibly could, avoid being. NASA, however, is desperate—to solve the problem it has set for itself. To beat the USSR. To inspire. To win. The agency needs someone who gets the math—indeed, as Goble’s eventual boss, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), repeatedly tells his team at the Space Task Group, the agency needs someone who can invent the math. NASA needs, although it takes far too long to realize it, Katherine Goble.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, as it were, and for the NASA of that segregated Virginia, the “desperate measures” in this case involve giving a black woman a chance to check the numbers. And once that woman is given a chance … her genius becomes too apparent to ignore. Via the numbers—and, of course, via the prodigious mathematical mind that is housed in the body of a woman—the arc of history moves, little by little, until finally, physics being what they are, it bends. What is that arc, after all, if not another geometric equation?

Hidden Figures, to be clear, isn’t an idealized representation of progress’s march forward. “Desperate measures” is a decidedly suboptimal way for people to win the most basic measures of equality. Goble’s fate—which is, in this case, also John Glenn’s, and Al Harrison’s, and the nation’s—rests in the hands of people who are so myopic in their desire to win the space race that they are willing to put aside their feelings about race of a different form. Harrison may be less inclined to tolerate the “that’s the way it is” explanations that other characters offer in their attempts to justify—and, indeed, to absolve—NASA in its endorsement of segregated bathrooms, lunchrooms, and coffee pots; that disinclination, however, is an extremely poor substitute for true heroism. Hidden Figures’s narrative trajectory involves not just progress that emerges, too often, from pettiness, but also thematic elements of the white savior, and of a culturally enforced tiara syndrome. All those things effectively temper the idealism of its message.

And yet all that is precisely what makes Hidden Figures—and its message—so powerful. The film is, Soraya Nadia McDonald argued in a fantastic essay for The Undefeated, deeply pragmatic about progress itself. “It’s a glimpse at how you win civil rights victories even if you don’t win hearts and minds,” McDonald writes. “It’s about winning battles as a result of common interests even as your adversaries have trouble seeing you as a person who is just like them.” The film’s message doesn’t soar so much as it insists on staying rooted in reality. It is an exploration of the ways that history’s arc-ish movements can be as lurching and frayed as they can be smooth. Hidden Figures, in other words, offers not empty idealism, but rather, as McDonald puts it, “tangible hope.”

And in many ways, the instruments of that hope are the numbers that make the math that make the history. Numbers, in Hidden Figures, are their own instruments of progress. This is a film, my colleague Lenika Cruz noted in her review, that celebrates the power of collective genius—and it is numbers that allow that genius to reveal itself, in all its undeniable empiricism. The answer is either correct or not. The problem is either solved or not. Math, in that sense, is in Hidden Figures a tool of meritocracy. It is a symbol of the power of education (chalk being handed from one person to another is a recurring motif in the film), but it is also, more broadly, a metaphor for a world that could be so much better if we would just let everyone, equally, have a say in its improvement. Math’s equations double, in Hidden Figures, as a hope for equality.

In that aspiration, Hidden Figures is akin to many other recent films about space. The Martian, whose hero saves himself—and inspires the world—by “science-ing the shit” out of his dire situation, doubles as a celebration of math’s ability to bring people together in shared, nation-transcendent, Arrowayesque pursuit. Gravity does something similar. So, in a way, does Interstellar. Arrival treats language as a science—as knowledge that can be gained, systematically, and that can lead to a better understanding of the universe and its occupants; its own “hidden figures” are the words and grammar and modes of communicating that shape us—and, indeed, that help to make us human.

Films about space, whether they are set beyond Earth or rooted firmly on its ground, will always be, on some level, about transcendence. They will gaze at the planet as a whole, and be awed by its beauty, and be disappointed by the cruelties that can happen within its haze. But at their best those movies will also, like Hidden Figures, have more to say about humans than they do about space itself. They will argue, in their telescopic vision, for the person-to-person equality that has thus far eluded our grasp. They will see us, ultimately, the way John Glenn did, circling the planet with the help of Katherine Johnson’s calculations: as small, and connected, and beautiful, and same.