Film Peaks: The ‘Hidden Figures’ Scene That Breaks the Glass Ceiling with Its Operatic Notes

In the 2016 film 'Hidden Figures,' Taraji P. Henson employs a dynamic change in volume to force the audience to simultaneously discover their own guilt and rage.

Fox 2000 Pictures, Chernin Entertainment, and Levantine Films
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The year is 1961. Drenched to the skin by a violent downpour, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) — one of NASA’s brightest ‘colored’ ‘computers’ — trots hurriedly into her workspace, the Space Task Group (STG), in her high heels, only to be leered at by her white male colleagues and met with the fury of her boss, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Every day at work, she has to run across many corridors, parking lots, and buildings to use the only segregated women’s bathroom in the area, located in a building half a mile away from the STG. But Al, who wants nothing more than to put an American astronaut in space and does not have “an eye for anything but numbers,” prefers to be unaware of (or perhaps to turn a blind eye to) the discriminatory gender and race politics of the American workplace. 

Al already runs a tight ship at the STG, and he only gets sterner when the Russians become the first to successfully send a human to space. He is utterly annoyed to find that Katherine is not at her desk. “Wow, where is she?”, he asks those seated around her desk.

He redirects the question to Katherine as soon as she enters the room, albeit with a poorer choice of words. “Where the hell have you been? […] Where the hell do you go every day?”, he asks, anger conspicuously dripping from his voice and gaze. What ensues is a tear-jerker of a confrontation scene that I keep coming back to, even seven years post-Hidden Figures’ release. 

Katherine replies meekly, “To the bathroom, sir.”

“The bathroom? The damn bathroom! For 40 minutes a day?”

“There is no bathroom for me here,” says Katherine, matter-of-factly but politely, her eyes downcast. 

“What do you mean there’s no bathroom for you her—?”

Before Al can finish his question, Katherine, enraged at his sheer ignorance of the discriminatory norms of his own organization, replies:

There is no bathroom. There are no colored bathrooms in this building, or any building outside the west campus, which is half a mile away. Did you know that?” There’s an inflection in Katherine’s volume at the “There” in the beginning. Her eyes are piercing through Al’s at this point, head tilted upwards with confidence, eyebrows raised meaningfully. 

“Picture that, Mr. Harrison. My uniform — skirt below my knees, my heels, and a simple string of pearls. Well, I don’t OWN PEARLS! Lord knows you don’t pay coloreds enough to afford PEARLS!” 

An audible quiver enters Katherine’s voice as she says these gut-wrenching words. Like her voice, her breath is shaking with rage too. Rage towards undeserved humiliation, ignorance, lack of acknowledgment of her hard work, the politics of skin color, and a plethora of other wrongs she and her community face every day.

She continues, increasing her volume with every word: “…and I work like a dog, day and night, living off of coffee from a pot NONE OF YOU WANT TO TOUCH!”

Silence.

Katherine’s eyes well up but she does not shed a single tear. She composes herself and says, “So, excuse me if I have to go to the restroom a few times a day.” Finally, she takes her stuff and leaves the room filled with silent white men confused about how to respond. 

The scene, just a few seconds shy of two minutes, comes right at the midpoint of the film and changes its tone with Henson’s singular performance. It also centers the ‘white savior’ trope in the film. More importantly, this scene serves as an operatic high point — a crescendo — for the movie. Like a crescendo, it overshadows all other high points in the film, and like a crescendo, there is graduality in the development of the circumstances that lead up to it.

Since day one of her job at the STG, Katherine is told exactly what she should do, how she should behave, what she should wear: “Skirts must be worn past the knee. Sweaters are preferred to blouses. No jewelry; a simple pearl necklace is the exception […] Do not talk to Mr. Harrison, lest he talks to you […] Don’t embarrass me […] Do your work. Keep your head down.” To all these outrageous instructions, she complies, for that is the way of the world around her. 

As she enters or leaves the STG, walks around the room, gets her coffee, and breathes, she silently suffers the unflinching stares of her white male colleagues — those terrified but fascinated stares tourists give to a tigress crossing the road on a jungle safari, because they believe, rather ironically, that the tigress has invaded their space. These are the same glances that Katherine’s friend and fellow computer Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) receives from her white female colleagues when she is seen as ‘invading’ a privileged space (the East Computing wing) later in the film.

Soon enough, Katherine finds that her dear colleagues have put aside a separate coffee pot for her, labeled ‘COLORED’ in bold, black letters surrounded by a bolder, black border. When she asks for the ladies’ room, her white female colleague informs her that she does not know where her bathroom is. Leers are turning into assault. 

By this time in the film, the other two protagonists, Dorothy and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), have had experiences similar to Katherine’s. Mary has been told she cannot become an engineer. Dorothy has been told she cannot become a supervisor. She and her kids have even been shoved out of a public library for trying to find a book in the white section. The three leads have been undermined and humiliated both as women and as persons of color. 

Katherine’s confrontation scene, therefore, comes as an operatic crescendo. It combines the anger of all the protagonists to powerfully convey that enough is enough. 

In most confrontation scenes, there is a confronter, an adversary, and a mediator, for lack of better terms. In this scene, Katherine is the confronter, even though she is not the one who starts the conflict. For a minute, it seems like Al is the adversary. But the truth is, Al is the mediator, while the rest of the people in the room are Katherine’s adversaries. 

Katherine leaves her adversaries speechless and uneasy, not only because of what she says but also because of how she says it. Henson, as Katherine, uses dynamic changes in her volume to get her point across to her colleagues. The tigress they had all been staring at has finally roared — and how. 

For those readers who, like the esteemed protagonists of this film, may have an inclination for crunching numbers, here are some insights from a rough app-supported decibel analysis and a few back-of-the-envelope calculations. Henson’s highest volume is seven times higher than her lowest in this scene. Plus, the volume range that Henson employs in this scene is twice as wide as Costner’s. It is as if Henson, as Katherine, is breaking the glass ceiling by raising her voice, just like an opera singer can break a wine glass with the sustained high notes of their voice alone.

If the speech inflections were not enough, the scene is aided by masterful camerawork (by Mandy Walker). The cinematography enhances the scene through slow close-ups of Henson’s face, interspersed with the uneasy reactions of a guilty audience. In fact, most of the scene only shows Henson’s face and shoulders; they are instruments enough to convey her anger.

The significance of this confrontation scene to the film’s universe is clear from the many callbacks to it in the second half of the film. For instance, Al and the team’s farewell gift to Katherine is a string of pearls. During NASA’s astronaut launch mission, STG engineer Sam Turner (Kurt Krause), has to run across parking lots and buildings to the west campus — exactly like Katherine has done several times before — to ask her to double-check the coordinates for the astronauts’ return to earth. And she runs back gloriously, braving her high heels, for the fifth and final time in the film. The last callback to the confrontation scene comes in the very last scene of the film, when Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), the lead STG engineer who treated Katherine unfairly for most of the film, brings her a cup of coffee. A fitting end to Katherine’s story. 

Of course, there have been many other memorable scenes of character outbursts and verbal rage in Hollywood. What is rare, however, is an authentic depiction of the transition in volume and demeanor from mellow and respectful to angry and reproachful. Several scenes from the 2011 film The Iron Lady come to mind. Right before the Falklands War, Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) has to convince those who question her decision to go to war with Argentina: “I have done battle every single day of my life, and many men have underestimated me before. This lot seem bound to do the same, but they will rue the day!” 

Margaret’s background and gender lead to more privileged men underestimating and ignoring her. She, too, has been told how to dress, what jewelry to wear, and what kind of voice to use. But Margaret is a politician who has honed her voice to command her aides; Katherine is a mathematician who has only just found her voice.

More recently, the 2018 film Hereditary featured a powerful confrontation scene between Annie Graham (Toni Collette) and her son Peter (Alex Wolff). This dinner table scene is about the death of Annie’s daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) in a horrific accident that happened when Peter was driving her to the hospital. Peter’s refusal to take responsibility for the accident, coupled with his disrespect and disdain for his mother, enrages Annie. She, too, raises her volume immensely, much like Katherine. 

But both Margaret and Annie channel a lot more physicality into their expression of anger. Annie slams the table, forcefully gets up from her chair, does some frantic hand-waving and pointing, and finally walks out of the room. Margaret uses her head as an instrument, shaking it frequently as she confronts those doubting her decision.

Katherine, on the other hand, conveys her rage without any pointing or violent waving. At one point, she does jerk her hand towards the ground without pointing it at anyone, but that’s about it. Instead, she uses a turn of her head, facing the large audience that surrounds her. Simply by turning her head away from Al to address the entire room, Katherine makes every single one of her colleagues a member of the guilty party. And ever so stealthily, she drags everyone watching the film into the scene as well, forcing the audience to introspect. 

The confronters in the audience are called upon to discover their rage. The adversaries are forced to admit their guilt to themselves. The mediators are left to mull over missed opportunities to support a deserving confronter. And the cinephiles cannot help but remain in awe of Henson’s performance, asking themselves why it was not considered worthy of even a nomination at the Oscars. 

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