“Every time we get a chance to get ahead they move the finish line. Every time.” Mary Jackson’s complaint about finding out that she needs to get a certification at an unsegregated men’s school before she can apply to engineering school summarizes the main theme of the movie. Hidden Figures follows Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson—human “computers” who worked in an all African American women’s division at the NASA Langley campus—and their trials and triumphs during the space race in the early 1960s. Intellect and ability may be color blind but opportunity was not. These capable women were used as temps, who temporarily joined teams at NASA to work on space projects based on whoever had an immediate need for a number cruncher. The opportunity to do anything beyond that (and get paid accordingly for it) was not available. The movie is based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly and adapted by Ted Melfi (the director) and Allison Schroeder.
First of all, I really enjoyed this movie. It’s fun and memorable–parts of this movie will stick with me for a long time. I credit Octavia Spencer in particular for bringing her infectious humorous warmth to the film as Dorothy and to Ted Melfi for ensuring the movie felt authentic, both historically and on a personal level. The main characters do not feel like cardboard cutouts of real people. There is even discussion of math in the film. Melfi studied the math in depth before writing key scenes to make sure he could explain it to a lay audience. His hard work pays off. A high point of the movie involves a discussion of elliptical orbits and Euler’s method. The historically accurate details in the film brought authenticity to the movie. I knew some things were true before fact checking later. An IBM mainframe is delivered and cannot fit through the door. John Glenn tells NASA managers to “get the girl to run the numbers” before a final check before his historic Mercury 7 flight. The “girl” is Katherine Goble Johnson who saves the day with math.
The movie also succeeds because it makes the obstacles the women faced feel real and difficult to overcome. There were many obstacles to their success. This was the era of segregation, which meant separate bathrooms, drinking fountains, coffee pots, and sections in the library. There was only one women’s “colored” bathroom on the enormous NASA Langley campus. The human computers were being replaced with an IBM mainframe. Checking out a book on FORTRAN to program the mainframe at the public library was an ordeal because FORTRAN books were not in the colored section of the library.
While the movie follows a familiar formula, it feels fresh. Through Melfi’s steady direction, Hidden Figures clearly conveys that the seemingly small issue of the African American women not having a nearby bathroom is in fact a huge obstacle. Several scenes follow Katherine scurrying to and from the bathroom across the NASA campus (half a mile each way) for bathroom breaks in a skirt and high heels, the required dress code at the time. Each time, the plot movies forward in key ways. Katherine makes important contributions to the project, yet her name cannot go on the report since computers cannot author reports. Engineers can only author reports, so a white male engineer gets credit for Katherine’s work and Katherine is for the moment written out of history. Again, Melfi’s direction communicates these ideas visually. Throughout the movie, we understand that the myriad of small institutional barriers to inclusion and equal opportunity were like a ton of feathers that impeded all but the brightest stars from achieving what what anyone should be entitled to have. We still have institutional barriers today. Melfi doesn’t tell this to the audience, but instead lets them connect the dots on their own.
Most of the movie follows Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy at work, but they each have key scenes outside of work with their families. Early in the movie, we only know the main characters as African American mathematicians. Only later we learn that they have families. Katherine goes home and we discover that she is a widow and single mom to three daughters. This scene was my favorite. Katherine returns to her daughters after a long day of work. Her three daughters are fighting as they go to bed and irritated that their mother has to work. She does not apologize for working, and instead calmly gets her daughters to stop fighting and puts them to bed. She is both a good mother and mathematician. The director Ted Melfi got this right. Katherine eventually remarries in the film. From the moment she meets her future husband (Jim Johnson), he understands that she and her children are a package deal and the children are at the center of their relationship. All three women are working mothers pass on their values on to their children in a world where the rules are not fair. Dorothy and Mary tell their young children about injustices. Mary and her husband do not have the same temperament, but her husband supports her working toward an engineering degree. Later Mary becomes the first black women engineer to work at NASA.
This movie is not completely original but it was nearly perfectly executed. This movie will stick with me for a long time, and I’m anxious to see it again, this time with my daughters. I highly recommend it.
What did you think of Hidden Figures?
For more reading and listening:
- From computers to leaders: women at NASA Langley
- Margot Lee Shetterly’s website about her book that is the basis of Hidden Figures
- Five years ago I blogged about women in computing.
- “Pictures from a Bell Labs data center in the 1960s. This is awesome. What is amazing in how many women and women of color worked in the data center and how many were in leadership positions. I am happily surprised that Bell Labs was not as Mad Men-esque as I thought it would be. Now I’m itching to know more about the early data centers and computing.”
- Retro delight: gallery of computers from the 1940s – 1960s
- A podcast by Stuff Mom Never Told you about women computers at NASA is great and has links to a few good resources.
- Women programmed the first computer << Digital Trends