Hidden Figures Shows How a Bathroom Break Can Change History

Janelle Monáe, Taraji P. Henson, and Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures. Photo: Twentienth Century Fox

It says something that the most memorable scenes in Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures, the new biopic about the black women of NASA’s Langley Research Center, take place not in the starry reaches of outer space, but in and around a women’s bathroom.

Hidden Figures, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, tells the story of three brilliant mathematicians — Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) — who worked as “human computers” in the all-black “West Computing” group of NASA’s Langley research lab in Hampton, Virginia, in the late 1950s and ’60s. Confined to a cramped basement office on Langley’s west campus (the white computers worked on the east campus), these women used their intellect and ingenuity to go where no women of color had ever gone before, while being routinely denied opportunities for advancement and confined to segregated dining areas and bathrooms.

Our protagonist is Katherine, a numerical genius who hand-calculated the spacecraft trajectories that helped astronaut John Glenn become the first American to orbit the Earth. (Her narrative is intercut with the amazing stories of her colleagues: Dorothy Vaughan became NASA’s first black supervisor and an expert programmer in the early days of computers, while Mary Jackson would go on to become NASA’s first African-American female engineer.) But it’s not an easy road. When Katherine is assigned to help calculate launch and landing trajectories at NASA’s Space Task Group on east campus, she asks her white female colleague (and the only other woman working there) where the bathroom is located. The woman chides: “I have no idea where your bathroom is.” Thus commences Katherine’s humiliating daily cardio routine. Each day, stack of papers in hand, high heels wobbling, Katherine must belt half a mile across Langley to use the dilapidated “colored bathroom” on west campus (often to the soundtrack of Pharrell’s “Runnin’”). Saddled with a stack of calculations, we watch her hunched over on the toilet seat, pen in hand, as she tries not to waste even a second away from her desk. The film’s brilliance lies in bringing the fundamental injustices of segregation down to a bodily level, manifesting its evils through the most routine of daily activities.

Co-screenwriter Allison Schroeder tells me that she was inspired by an anecdote from Shetterly’s book, in which Mary Jackson’s white female colleagues laughed at her when she asked where the bathroom was. “It just hit me, because I had just read about their dress code, that as a woman, it’s Virginia summer: pantyhose, heels, walking half a mile to pee. And then Virginia winter: pantyhose, heels, and a skirt,” she recalls. “It was just so appalling to me. There were bikes on campus that the guys could use, but the girls couldn’t because they had skirts on. And it just struck me as the greatest indignity that you couldn’t even pee, how disrespectful it is.”

The impact of these scenes stems in part from the tension between Katherine’s urgent work — racing against the clock to engineer one of the most grandiose achievements of humankind — and the illogical hurdles that bigotry puts in her way. Here segregation isn’t just an injustice; it’s an obstacle preventing America’s best and brightest from achieving their goals. Watching other engineers put out a separate “colored” coffee pot for her, the audience can’t help shaking their heads: You’re building a rocket-ship and that’s what you’re worried about? No wonder you need Katherine to check your math.

Eventually, Katherine’s superior, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), confronts her about her unexplained absences from her desk. The result is a scorching speech in which Katherine, soaking wet from running back and forth in the rain, lists the many daily humiliations that he and her other (white, male) co-workers fail to notice. “There are no colored bathrooms here, or anywhere except the west campus,” she says, through tears. “And I work like a dog living off a pot of coffee the rest of you don’t want to touch.” This is a feel-good movie, so her speech has a feel-good conclusion: Harrison marches over to west campus, bashes the bathroom sign down with a sledgehammer, and declares, “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color!”

“I worried people would think this was the craziest story line, but for me it represented both racism and being a woman,” Schroeder explains.“Because of course the guys don’t realize what’s going on. [Harrison’s] not an outright villain, he’s just oblivious, and it would never occur to him in a million years that she didn’t have a ladies’ room.”

In fact, it’s not so surprising that a movie about breaking race and gender barriers would address bathroom politics. As we’ve seen in the recent debate over anti-trans bathroom bills, public restrooms are a unique liminal space where abstract ideas about justice and access play out in intimate ways. Public bathrooms have long been a key landmark in the civil-rights fight, a zone onto which people project their anxieties about social change, a locus where the personal and political intersect.

We see this again later in the film, when a women’s bathroom becomes the scene of another pivotal moment: a confrontation between Dorothy Vaughan and her supervisor Vivian (Kirsten Dunst). It’s the first time Dorothy has been allowed in the “white bathroom,” and the difference is striking. The “colored bathroom” was gray and dilapidated, with no paper towels or soap. The “white bathroom” is clean and well-appointed, bathed in a lamp’s rosy light — a visual embodiment of separate but not equal.

Throughout the film, Vivian has consistently disrespected Dorothy and failed to give her the promotion she deserves. But in this private women-only space, where everyone pees the same color, we see for the first time, Vivian engaging her co-worker as a human being. “Despite what you think, I don’t have anything against y’all,” Vivian says. It’s one of the film’s most resonant moments: America may not have racially segregated bathrooms anymore, but it’s still rife with Vivian’s way of thinking, with the cognitive dissonance that allows people to support racist policies while decrying racism, or to cheer a film like Hidden Figures while believing that trans people shouldn’t be allowed equal access to public restrooms. In response, Dorothy fixes Vivian with a pitying gaze and delivers one of the film’s most stirring lines: “I know you probably believe that.”

Hidden Figures is an important act of counter-history, about inscribing forgotten heroines into the public record. But it’s also an important reminder of how blinding prejudice can be: how many hidden things are actually just things we choose not to see.

Hidden Figures Shows How a Bathroom Break Can Change History