Movie: Hidden Figures

Title: Hidden Figures
Directed by: Theodore Melfi
Theatrical/Blu-Ray/DVD
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner
Release Date: December 25, 2016
Reviewed by: Susan Tolleson
Rating: PG
FA Scorecard: A

I love movies that share stories from history that have previously been “hidden” to us. Stories like “Argo” (which chronicles attempts to rescue the American hostages held by Iran 1979-80) or “Eddie the Eagle” (based on the life of British Olympic skier Eddie Edwards); “Bridge of Spies” (starring Tom Hanks and based on the 1960 U-2 incident) or “Twelve Years a Slave” (which tells about a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841); “The Imitation Game” (the story of a mathematician who cracks the Nazi code during WWII) or the highly acclaimed “Schindler’s List.” There’s something special about being familiar with a well-known story, then hearing about the humans behind that story and how their roles played out in a completely different story.

The highly anticipated “Hidden Figures” is much like that. Most every American knows about the race to space and John Glenn’s first orbit around the earth. But few of us think about what it took to get and keep him in space for three trips around the earth at speeds of 17,000 miles per hour, especially at a time before computers. “Computers” were—as the movie points out—humans. In this case, women of color who calculated numbers all day every day for extraordinary engineering feats designed to showcase the U.S.’s superior space program.

There is SO much to this movie! Besides the obvious celebration of women in STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) fields at a time when few women worked outside the home or even had college degrees, and the fact that these were black women doing the computing at the dawn of the Civil Rights movement, this movie has layers upon layers of lessons for us today.

First, let me say, I am a word-girl living in a house of math people. My husband is a statistician with an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a graduate degree in stats, and my 13-year-old daughter is taking 10th grade geometry while still in middle school. So naturally, with all the positive messages about women and math, and lessons about inequality and race, we took her with us to see it. In fact, I was pleased to see many families with their young girls at this movie. I hope that’s happening across the country. (And yes, my husband and daughter checked the math while it was up on the screen. Oh. Brother.)

In case you’ve been in a cave, “Hidden Figures” is based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly which tells the story of female mathematicians Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). In the 1950s and 60s, these women worked in the all-black computing group at NASA’s research lab in Virginia. The white computers (and staff) worked on the east side of the campus in luxurious and spacious offices while the black computers were stuffed into a basement on the west side of the campus. Their job was to calculate the formulas that would help NASA successfully launch a man into space for the Project Mercury orbit and the Apollo 11 flight to the moon in 1969.

On one level, this movie made me feel triumphant and proud. On another level, it was very hard to watch in some spots. When mathematical genius Katherine Johnson gets transferred to the east campus, she has to continue using the “colored” bathroom on the west campus a half mile away. One mile roundtrip, outside, regardless of the weather. It was painful to watch her run across the campus in heels, a skirt and pantyhose day after day, carrying armloads of reports so she could use every spare minute for checking computations.

One day when she returns from one of these trips during a torrential downpour, her boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) confronts her on where she goes for so long on her breaks. Soaked to the bone and through angry tears, Katherine lets him know in no uncertain terms that while she’s trying to help the team achieve a monumental task that’s never been done before, she is forced to deal with the humiliation of not being able to address a basic biological need in the same building where she works. In true Hollywood fashion, Harrison marches over to the west campus restroom, knocks down the “colored bathroom” sign with a sledgehammer and declares, “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color!” (New York Magazine wrote an insightful article about the potential impact of this issue on history: http://nymag.com/thecut/2017/01/hidden-figures-shows-how-a-bathroom-break-can-change-history.html.)

Other scenes in the movie show Dorothy Vaughan and her sons being kicked out of the “white” part of a segregated library as she looks for a book about the programming language FORTRAN. The exchange with the librarian made me feel so uncomfortable. But since this is a feel-good movie, once she and her sons leave and are on the bus, she pulls out a FORTRAN book, much to the surprise of her boys. She tells them she’s a taxpayer and her taxes paid for this book, so she has a right to it just like anyone else.

Again, there’s so much packed into this movie. I love the way Dorothy takes opportunities to teach her sons valuable life lessons (they pass civil rights activists with police and dogs coming at them, and she tells her sons: “Pay attention that we’re not part of that trouble” and later, “If you act right, you are right”), and her efforts to change her future by learning a new work skill. This lesson is often lost in today’s society where workers may choose to feel victimized and defeated by change rather than embrace the future and research how they can make themselves more valuable. Dorothy picks up on cues that with the coming “IBM” (mainframe computer), her job—and that of the entire west computing group—would be in jeopardy. She doesn’t wait for someone to tell her, she anticipates. She learns the computing language on her own, teaches herself how to program the IBM the male staff had not been able to figure out (I LOVED that scene!), and in doing so, became NASA’s first African-American supervisor and an expert programmer who trained hundreds of women to program over the years. Not only did she change the trajectory of the space program, but she changed the trajectory of her own life, as well as the lives of thousands more.

The third leading character, Mary Jackson, is encouraged by a fellow employee to apply for NASA’s engineering program. Although she already has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physical science, she lacks some of the credentials required, so she petitions a Virginia state court to attend night classes at a segregated school. Mary pleads on her own behalf, cleverly making her argument about the judge and how his decision would have potential impact on the future of the space program. It works, she’s allowed to attend, and not only is she the only African-American taking the engineering classes, but the movie hints that she is the only woman, as well (another favorite feel-good scene when she shows up to class). She went on to become NASA’s first African-American female engineer.

The movie also shows that despite all of these women being smart, strong and determined, there is a tenderness in their personal relationships—between Katherine and her mother, between Katherine and her three daughters who have recently lost their father, between Katherine and her second husband, between Dorothy and her sons, and between Mary and her husband. In all of these cases, even though the women had groundbreaking work to do during the day, it was obvious their first loves were the people waiting at home. It was refreshing to see the slow and steady courtship between Katherine and the dashing Col. Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali) that ultimately led to a 56-year marriage. Feisty Mary’s relationship with Levi (Aldis Hodge), her civil-rights activist husband, is a sweet one, even though at first he doesn’t want her to pursue a career as an engineer. He comes around and as she heads to her first night of class, he presents her with a bouquet of mechanical pencils and a passionate kiss. I have no idea what these characters’ real relationships were like, but when so many current movies use the storyline that one must choose between career and relationships, it’s nice to see that maybe, perhaps, that’s not necessarily the case.

Another takeaway was the value of having a champion. Not that the women weren’t fully capable of doing the impressive calculations themselves, but others taking notice of them is what launched them to where a woman of color had never gone before. In the case of Mary, the movie shows a male co-worker encouraging her to apply for the engineering program. You get the feeling he’s brought up the topic several times before she agrees to go for it. Gum-chewing Al Harrison, Katherine’s boss who is actually a composite of three people who worked at NASA Langley at the time, is Katherine’s champion. He only cares about “seeing beyond the math” and finding a solution to their trajectory problems, so when Katherine shows great promise for providing that solution, he doesn’t seem to care that she’s a woman or that she’s black. Although his character is described as someone who will never warm up to you, there are glimpses of his admiration for Katherine and his efforts to champion her intellect. Although many moviegoers may feel like he didn’t do near enough, they must also take into account the time and place, and that he was focused on launching a rocket, not a movement.

While civil rights is the definitive backdrop to the challenges the characters face, it’s not something they directly mention. But as would be true for a woman of color living and working at that time, its unfortunate impact is seen, felt and experienced everywhere. Almost every trial the characters face ties back to the law of segregation and culture of racism in Virginia in the 1950s and 1960s. Dorothy’s boss, played by Kirsten Dunst, and Katherine’s co-worker, played by Jim Parsons, are professional, but they don’t hide their disdain for working alongside these talented women of color.

Although many may assume “Hidden Figures” is just another civil rights movie, the director seems to have purposefully crafted it to emphasize the individual achievements each woman accomplishes against a backdrop of race-related obstacles. As much as it is about both an ugly and triumphant time in our nation’s history, it also is about the hard work, determination, discipline and strength each of these women showed as they made their mark on history. Their legacy is one of which all American women—black or white—can be proud.

*** If you would like more information about the women featured in “Hidden Figures” or STEM, take a look at these resources:

http://thehumancomputerproject.com/about – tells the stories of women who worked as mathematicians and “”computers”” at the NACA and NASA in the 1930s – 1970s.
http://margotleeshetterly.com/hidden-figures-nasas-african-american-computers – Margot Lee Shetterly’s book “”Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race””
https://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ostp/women – The White House’s page on women in STEM
https://www.ed.gov/stem – the U.S. Dept of Education’s STEM plan
https://ngcproject.org/statistics – statistics about women & girls in STEM
http://www.stemedcoalition.org/ – The STEM Education Coalition raises awareness about the critical role of STEM education.

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