Thoughts on Hidden Figures

Art by Stella Blu

*Be warned, this post contains spoilers. For those of you who have not seen the film, and want to avoid them, my thoughts can be summarised in three words: absolutely, flipping brilliant.* 

Hidden Figures tells the true story of three African America women, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, who worked for NASA during the 1960’s. All three women progressed to make brilliant contributions to the NASA space program. However, Hidden Figures focuses on the beginning of their careers. The political landscape was intense with America lagging behind the Soviet Union in the space race, making the USA paranoid and eager to get their first man, John Glenn, into space. Meanwhile, segregation ran rampant and unchecked. It is in this context we meet our three brilliant mathematicians.  

The audience first meets Katherine, Dorothy and Mary after Dorothy’s car breaks down on their way to work.  As Dorothy fixes the car, a police car approaches them with sirens blasting. All three women stiffen.

Dorothy: “No crime in a broken-down car,”

Mary: “No crime being Negro, neither.”

The police officer pulls over, gets out of the car and places his hand over his billy club. He approaches the women with suspicion and proceeds to conduct a small-scale interrogation. After finding out the women work at NASA, he recovers from his shock, prattles about communists and Sputnik until he eventually softens and offers the women a police escort to work. Within the first ten minutes of the film, the two battles of the era, the space race and civil rights, are presented side by side. Katherine, Mary and Dorothy’s lives provide an intersecting point where those two battles collide. As well as challenging the audience to see the uncomfortable parallels the film has with the present.

A closer look at the women

Early on in the film, Katherine receives a job promotion to work in the Space Task Group calculating landings for John Glenn. Her promotion sees her move from working with 30 other African American women in the segregated West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center, to working in a sea of white men. Katherine was mistaken for a cleaner, forced to drink out of a ‘coloured’ coffee pot and was not trusted with classified information, hindering her ability to complete her job.

Katherine even had to battle with the simple task of going to the bathroom. Following her promotion, Katherine had to run a quarter of a mile to go to the toilet because there were no ‘coloured’ toilets any closer. Witnessing someone run quarter of a mile, in heels, to a segregated restroom, while furiously completing work along the way, is confronting to say the least. Especially when I took time to consider my convenient 10 second walk to the bathroom everyday at work. 

While Katherine fights to be recognised and appreciated in the workplace, Mary has dreams of becoming an engineer. When Mary is encouraged to apply for an engineering position by her boss, she is furious to realise she no longer qualifies because the requirements have changed.

“Every time we get a chance to get ahead they move the finish line. Every time.”

In order to qualify, Mary had to complete courses at an all white school. Mary’s frustration with the segregated environment she lived in was so strong, it nearly prevented her from fighting to be enrolled. Admirably, Mary does take action. She goes through the extraordinary length of appearing in court to get an order that allows her to attend the required classes. When Mary turns up at night school (she was not allowed to go during the day) she is the only African American and only female in the class.

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Meanwhile, Dorothy is still working in the West Area Computers division of Langley Research Centre. She is the supervisor to the African American women who work there in every respect, except for her official job title. Despite chasing the opportunity and asking about her application, she continues to be ignored. Dorothy’s frustration with her stagnant career is beautifully demonstrated by her comment after Katherine is promoted: “Any upward movement is movement for us all. It’s just not movement for me.” 

Dorothy soon realises once the new IBM computer system is installed, her job as a computer, and the jobs of the African American female computers she works with, will no longer be required. In the face of redundancy, Dorothy sets a plan into motion to make herself invaluable. In order to make herself indispensable, she goes to the library to find a book on FORTRAN programming language, so she can learn how to control the machine poised to replace her. The book was only available in the white section of the library. Upon entering the section, she is told off, and escorted out of the library by a police officer.

Despite this set back, Dorothy is a visionary and continues with her plan. She learns FORTRAN and trains the other women in her division. When Dorothy’s skill set later comes to light, she is offered a promotion, side-stepping redundancy. Dorothy however refuses to take the promotion unless the women she works with are given jobs as well. Dorothy’s vision secured the continuation of her career as well as the careers of other African American women. 

A closer look at gender and race issues

I was struck at the constant obstacles the society of the time created and enforced for these women. However, all three women demonstrated bravery and dedication, where most people would have surrendered. They had to be brave, outspoken and take risks in order to progress. This would not have been possible for every woman in their position, due to fear or personality differences.

Katherine, Mary and Dorothy’s fight to progress effectively demonstrates the essence of intersectional feminism. Things were hard if you were women, and harder again if you were a woman from a minority group.

Not only are themes of intersectional feminism evident in the film, but Dorothy tackles issues of unconscious bias in her powerful line delivered when interfacing with her white, female supervisor:

Vivian: Despite what you may think, I have nothing against y’all.

Dorothy: I know you probably believe that.

Obviously, this discussion about race is still relevant today.

Art by Stella Blu

A closer look at the importance of community in story-telling

Despite racial discrimination and tensions at the workplace the women continue to lead full lives. Their interactions with each other, their families and communities lighten the tone of the film. Not only does it provide humour, but it provides another focus point in the film.

Lenika Cruz for The Atlantic said it best:

When it comes to historical movies about brilliant minds, especially in the realms of math or the sciences, audiences can all but expect a tale of ego. Films such as A Beautiful Mind, The Theory of Everything, and The Imitation Game all lean in some way on the idea of the inaccessible genius—a mathematician, computer scientist, and theoretical physicist all somehow removed from the world. Hidden Figures is not that kind of film: It’s a story of brilliance, but not of ego. It’s a story of struggle and willpower, but not of individual glory.

As Lenika points out, from the beginning it is clear Hidden Figures is not a story about one woman’s brilliance. Instead, it has a wider focus. The film is an ensemble piece jumping between the three women who would have phenomenal impact on the NASA space program in three distinct areas. The theme of community is broader than the small community between the three leads. As opposed to showing the women as isolated geniuses, the audience witnesses them frequently interact with their wider community. This includes their children, husbands, and church community. It was their personal relationships that gave them the courage to fight at work and in turn, they made their communities proud.

A closer look at today

Despite the 50 or so years that have elapsed, the themes in Hidden Figures unfortunately remain relevant today. As always, history and the arts, provide a springboard to discuss today’s issues and how we can continue to tackle them.

Once again I must quote Lenika who says it best:

Watching this particular story unfurl on the big screen, it’s hard not to think of how many more movies and books could be made about women like Katherine Johnson—talented women shut out of promotions and meetings and elite programs and institutions and, thus history, because they weren’t white. Even today, barriers remain. A 2015 study found 100 percent of women of color in STEM fields report experiencing gender bias at work, an effect often influenced by their race. Black and Latina women, for example, reported being mistaken for janitors (a scene that, fittingly, takes place in Hidden Figures).

There is obviously still work to be done. And Hidden Figure is just another source of inspiration to draw upon while we fight our way there.

 

Extra for experts

 

Watch

Hidden Figures at a cinema near you

 

Buy

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Margot Lee Shetterly

Read

Lenika Cruz, What Sets the Smart Heroines of Hidden Figures Apart – The Atlantic, 9 January 2017

Mekita Rivas, Why It Matters that ‘Hidden Figures’ outearned ‘La La Land’, The Good, 8 February 2017

Margot Lee Shetterly, The Hidden History of NASA’s Black Female Scientists, The Guardian, 5 February 2017

Robert Z. Pearlman, ‘Hidden Figures’: ‘The Right Stuff’ vs. Real Stuff in New Film About NASA History – Space.com, 27 December 2016

 

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