The movie Hidden Figures isn’t as historical as you might think.
Historical accuracy isn’t an issue, as far as I know. (Though I do wonder if some racial tensions were sanitized for the big screen. And I should mention I’m not very good at math—like, at all—so the equations scribbled on chalkboards could have been complete nonsense, and I will never know.)
What I cannot get out of my head is how poignantly current Hidden Figures truly is. Sadly, yet powerfully, its themes are not simply facts of the past.
Telling the Untold Stories of NASA’s Hidden Figures
Hidden Figures tells the true stories of three young black women whose intelligence, hard work, and gracious persistence perhaps did more for NASA, the Civil Rights movement, and women’s rights than we may ever know.
It was 1961. The Space Race was on, the fronts of city busses were still occupied solely by white people, (though that momentum would soon wane) and women weren’t supposed to be, uh, smart.
Meanwhile, at NASA, engineers were trying to put a man in space, and they had to do it without the use of the computers you and I know. Their computers weren’t the ones I’m typing this with or the one you’re reading it on either on your lap or in your hands.
Their computers were people—quite literally, people who computed. Math people. (Those words will never describe me, by the way.) And, to the surprise of the white police man we meet in an early scene, those computers even included black women. Colored computers, that is; so declared the sign outside their basement work room. Such a foreign phrase to me when it first flashed appeared on screen, “COLORED COMPUTERS.” Being born this side of the technological revolution, I had to think about that for a moment.
Oh, one more thing to note about these colored computers. They had their own bathroom, and while that may sound like a luxury, it actually was an insult. Only one on NASA’s Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory (Hampton, Virginia) campus read “COLORED LADIES ROOM.” Another foreign sign for me, being born this side of the civil rights movement.
Katherine Goble Johnson
When Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) was called up to the space test center to be a computer for the next space launch and landing, she was mistaken for the janitor. And intentionally held back by coworker Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons, who may have had a hard time not playing Sheldon Cooper). And when she needed to use the restroom, she had to literally run back to the basement—nearly a half-mile away. That’s when that bathroom sign came down. Her boss, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) couldn’t afford the minutes she spent running across campus. That, and he couldn’t ignore the well-timed, skillful way Katherine told him off when he asked where she’d been. I wanted to give her standing ovation and briefly considered asking for telling off lessons.
Their mission—the launch, orbit, and landing of John Glenn in Friendship 7—was too big, too crucial, to waste time on social boundaries.
Though I don’t share any of Katherine G. Johnson’s racially driven cultural experiences—and definitely not her ability to do complicated (or let’s be honest, even simple) mathematics—one scene did strike a chord with me: when she walked into a room full of important, powerful men as a woman who dared have a brain. Been there, done that. It’s not easy.
But Katherine Goble Johnson’s intelligence, combined with her fearless composure may have saved John Glenn’s life.
“I wouldn’t have to. I’d already be one,” snarked Mary.
Mary Jackson had every potential to pursue an engineering degree to qualify for an engineering job at NASA. Except the night classes were held at an all-white high school. And though her husband may have pursued more persuasive (read: violent) means to gain civil rights, Mary graciously, respectfully, yet tenaciously held law-makers’ feet to the fire. With poise, decency, and bravery, yet without hostility, vulgarity, or revenge.
Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) performed the job of a supervisor for the colored computers without the pay or the title of one. She asked—more than once—for the promotion, but when she, at the bottom of the NASA totem pole, saw it just wasn’t going to happen, she got creative.
When the new machine computer from IBM (your laptop’s ancestor) arrives and threatens to put Dorothy and her crew out of jobs—hello, automation—Dorothy gathers her nerve (admittedly not hard for an Octavia Spencer character). She borrows (kind of) the book on FORTRAN from the white section of the library and teaches herself the IBM programming language. It can’t be that hard, can it?
Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughan accomplished monumental tasks for NASA, women’s rights, and the civil rights movements. Colossal, even.
And they did it all without vandalism or violence. Just a little bit of confidence and a whole lot of moxie.
Moxie vs. Marching
I’m writing this in the wake of the Women’s March on Washington, in which millions of women protested President Trump’s (officially the first time I’ve written that, whoa), truly historic inauguration. Which, to be honest, puts me in an awkward spot.
I didn’t march. I’m a woman, and I didn’t march.
Do I believe in equal rights? Yes. Do I want to get paid the same amount for the same job as a man? Yes. Do I wanted to be treated for the value I have as a human being, regardless of my reproductive system? Yes. Do I stand for the freedom to speak out, be heard, and march? Absolutely. But I didn’t march.
I don’t believe marching is wrong; in fact I commend many of the women who stood together for equality and human worth. I am proud of my fellow women who came together peacefully for a cause. I may not agree with every woman who marched, but I’m thankful for women of conviction.
What these three black women did in 1961 may have accomplished more than a few crude hats and distasteful signs. These three women stood for their right to opportunity and for difference-making without the use of vulgarity, anger, or hate.
Because, contrary to popular belief, well-behaved women can and do make history. And we applaud you, ladies. Well done.
Hidden Figures—A Lot Like Today?
So is Hidden Figures a historical movie? Absolutely. It tells the true story some of our nation’s landmark accomplishments. Because of women like Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughan, space travel, moon landings, computers (the machines), and even the smartphone in your hands have been made possible. In fact, there’s no telling the far-reaching impacts Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughan have made in our society.
But the issues being fought against in Hidden Figures—racism, civil rights, and women’s rights aren’t so far in the past as we all want it to be.
These vices still remain. They look different these days: women now are welcomed (even marketed to) into colleges, there are no longer separate bathrooms or assigned bus seats, and blatant denial of jobs or promotions based on skin tone is no more. But the vices still remain. We aren’t even a generation removed from the turmoil of the 1960s; we’ve seen that generational beliefs take longer to bleed out than we we would all like to believe. There is still work to be done.
But together, we can make Hidden Figures a truly historical film.